School Choice vs. Equal Education: why we are talking past each other

With Betsy DeVos up for Secretary of Education, the debate over “school choice” is back.* Both sides of the debate agree that too many public schools suck, and both sides of the debate agree that children have a right to good education. But the conservative** solution proposed is to allow families to hold schools accountable by voting with their feet. The liberal side argues that, because not all families have equal opportunity to choose the “best” option, this sticks low-income families in the same crappy schools but with even fewer resources. Instead, the lefty solution is to minimize school choice in order to maximize community accountability for all schools.

You can argue this in terms of facts and figures, policy details, and assessments of different attempts to implement these systems across the country. But it seems like those arguments only convince the people who are already generally aligned with one side of the political spectrum. In other words, we are talking past each other. But why?

One big reason is that we are talking about rights in two different ways – ways we tend to associate with different age groups. In particular, I think this is (perhaps subtly) being framed as the right of parents to choose the best school versus the right of children to equal education. Or, in other words, the right to equal access and the right to equal remedy.***

The right to equal access is saying something like, you have the right to try and find work wherever you want, and no one can enslave you or make you a serf, and no one can refuse to hire you for irrelevant reasons (like being poor, Native American, old, trans*, etc). But equal access to work does not mean that you can be the president or a CEO or a professor just because you think that would be nice, instead you are accountable for your own specialized training and have to compete with other people on the same grounds of merit.

The right to equal remedy, on the other hand, recognizes that our society is not a level playing field, and is explicitly targeted at fixing that. The hands-down biggest way we have agreed to do that in the modern world is through education: all children have the right to be educated. It doesn’t matter if they have learning disabilities, it doesn’t matter if they refuse to do their homework, and it definitely doesn’t matter if they live too far away from a school. Unlike the right to equal access, equal remedy means that you have the right to go to the best school just because you think that would be nice. This whole idea of equal remedy justifies the (adult) framework of equal access. It’s how we justify to ourselves that our playing field is equal enough for adults to reasonably compete against each other based on merit.

So, back to school choice. It is, essentially, a framework of equal access and not equal remedy. There’s a reason we don’t talk about children “choosing” their schools: it’s because we recognize that is the responsibility of parents and adult guardians. We don’t frame children’s rights as equal access, because we don’t believe that children have the ability to compete based on merit. We already know that it’s adults competing on their children’s behalf.

That’s why, when lefties vociferously argue to protect public education as a right to equal remedy – that all children must have the right to education (in order to create a level playing field as adults) – they aren’t making any headway. Because the right already agrees with that. Instead, the right has reframed the debate to make it about families, not children, fighting for the best opportunities for their children. Just like how a parent, not a child, is responsible for working to keep their kids clothed and fed.

So, how can we start talking to each other? I think the starting place is to acknowledge the place that both ethical frameworks have in our society. Yes, we do think that it is a parents’ responsibility to fight for (and provide for) their children. And yes, we do think that children have the right to education, food, and clothes, even when their parents aren’t able to provide them.****

And from there, I confess, the next step seems obvious: parents should be able to fight for school choice and anything else for their children, but they must do it within a system that ensures children the equal remedy of education. But I’d love someone to argue with me.

*Of course, there are plenty of other things people have problems with about Betsy DeVos, but I don’t really have anything new to say about those.
** This debate doesn’t perfectly break down along the lines of left/right, conservative/liberal, Democrat/Republican, but it’s close, so I’m going with it.
*** I secretly think these terms are kind of confusing, but I can’t think of any that are consistently clearer, and these are classics – they are how T. H. Marshall distinguishes between civil and political rights on the one hand and social rights (like education) on the other in his long essay “Citizenship and Social Class“.
**** I could write a whole other essay about how we fail to convince each other of anything when we pretend the “other side” doesn’t agree with either of these propositions.

2 thoughts on “School Choice vs. Equal Education: why we are talking past each other

  1. Here’s the thing I keep coming back to: We began our idea of public education with Thomas Jefferson’s phrase “raking the rubbish,” and conceptually we’re still hampered by it.

    That is: 18th century society didn’t need that many professionals, skilled trades or businessmen. Mostly it needed agricultural workers and unskilled laborers. So TJ proposed a three-tiered structure (elementary, primary and university), and the idea was that only the best from level 1 (8-year-olds) would be sent to level 2, and only the single-best student at each Level 2 school (16 year olds) would be passed on to university. Hence: The majority would know only enough reading, math and geography to do simple work, a few more would know enough to get good skilled labor jobs, and the elite alone would go to university and be gentlemen.

    We’ve been living that model — in less draconian expression — ever since. And if you probe people on it, it’s still pretty much what they think school is for: The Great Winnowing.

    The problem now is that then non-farm labor force is about 97 percent of the workforce, and the unskilled portion of that labor pool is shrinking, both in terms of available jobs and earnings. It’s now clear that we need a public education model that doesn’t “rake the rubbish,” but gets a majority of the kids to a skilled trade level of preparation.

    No matter what you call the debate over “charter schools,” it’s an education system based on the notion of competition. The kids who can’t keep up “lose,” and are assigned to the lower rungs of society. Kids who keep pace, but don’t “win,” get decent jobs and respectable positions in the culture, but are not among the elite. And then those who win are invited into the aristocratic circle — because rich kids always leap the meritocracy and go straight to the top anyway.

    My question is, will arguing between “Equal Access” or “Equal Remedy” or any other labels we give the sides, ever change the basic story and it’s zero-sum outcome? Is it better to hone those messages, or is it better to change the story of public education? Change it from a story of competition with the illusion of social mobility to a new story about cooperation and reward?

    Because if you say “We started with competition, because the didn’t need smart workers, but now we need lots of smart, creative thinkers, and our goal is to get everyone who wants that life to the point where they can have it, because we’ll all benefit from their success.” Take away the artificial, arbitrary pace of learning that creates competition. Change the notion of “university” from the relic that it is today to something new and better adapted.

    No matter what we think we mean when we talk about education reform, adults have their own emotional memories of school, and their own hopes and fears for their children. Until we propose an entirely new story of education — why do we do it? what purpose and values does it serve? and so on — people are going to base their decisions on their greatest fears from their own experience. It’s a terribly difficult thing to change, because you’re asking people to “not believe what I already know to be true about school and the world.”

    If you want to change the outcomes, change the story. What story can you tell and change the world?

  2. Very interesting post. Ends a bit abruptly for me. I’d like your conclusion developed. You lay out constructs that are helpful. But I’d like to hear a bit more about how you see a shared place of beginning the conversationyour feasible in a society that places such low value on children in general and where “my” family, “my” country, “my” rights trumps the equality of remedy. Thank you for writing.

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