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.

Guerilla Panels at #AAA2012

A lot of people attended talks at the AAAs, but I think I’m one of the few who got to see a guerilla panel. It was awesome.

As I understood it, when the AAAs got more panels than could fit in their massive program, the AALCIG and AAGE’s* sponsored panels got dropped. But, rather than accept the rejection, they opened their Board Meeting with two new scholars’ papers. Three more senior scholars served as discussants for each. And maybe it was because there were more discussants than papers, and maybe it was just ‘cuz those guys were awesome, but it was massively educational. Apart from learning a great deal about what people who really like to work with “life course” care about, here are some other important lessons:

  • the AAAs are an opportunity to do the kind of anthro you care about – you can use other methods to get the word out to people, but take advantage and make it happen, regardless of the institutional support
  • champagne and chocolate chip cookies go fast
  • silent auctions of stuff that people in the group are interested in is a great thing to have happening in the background of a meeting (and my grad student group should totally do something similar)**

In sum, it was pretty great, and maybe I’ll try to be part of making something like that happen again next year. What were your highlights?


* the AAA Aging And Lifecourse Interest Group and the Association of Anthropology and Gerontology
** I won a video called My Name is Julius in the silent auction. Exciting because it’s about life course (my interest) and hearing loss (my husband’s interest, because of his company, Acudora).

On turning 29 for the first time

For women of a certain upbringing, 29 years old signifies the last year of one’s youth. I think it is fascinating (and more than a little funny) that this arbitrary prime number has been embraced as a number to claim, over and over through the years.

As a woman committed to a career in a field where maturity and asexuality will likely serve me better than youth and virility, I have to admit I am a little horrified by the idea that someone hearing my age will assume that I am seeking to conceal my chronological age.* As an anthropologist interested in the intersection between multiple frames of age (chronological, social, physiological, sociolinguistic, and otherwise) it is marvelous to have achieved (again) a chronological age with real social meaning**. As an outgrowth of the child I once was, I am thoroughly disgusted that I have not yet achieved a 2.5 kids and financial certainty. And as a grad student, the age trajectories of people who have not given almost a decade of their lives to training seem bizarrely foreign***.

What a ridiculous birthday this is, so saturated in banality and denial. And how delighted I am to celebrate it!

* I adore my (sadly few) gray hairs and years of experience in the world and unashamedly hope they will work in my favor.
** And, if I am being entirely honest, somewhat concerned that I will soon be too old to establish non-maternal rapport with adolescent informants …
*** There is a real sense in which graduate school seems to be a limbo of age in which real life only continues by sheer force of will and otherwise you are suspended between some freakish extended adolescence while preparing for obsolete decrepitude.

Squee on Learning New Things, or, Biological Anthropology Is Super Different

When I Grow Up I Want to Be a Student T-shirt

a relevant t-shirt that coincidentally happens to be available for sale through my store

I am determined to become more of a curmudgeon. When I came here after working as a case worker for an awesome non-profit, I thought I left my earnest optimism behind. But these moments of squee keep popping up and quashing my cynicism.

One thing I really value about the anthropology graduate program I’m in at the University of Arizona is the four field approach. Nevertheless, I have mostly lived between sociocultural anthropology, linguistic anthropology, and medical anthropology.* Archaeology and biological anthropology mostly enter my world as “things my friends do”.** But, suddenly, a burgeoning interest in bringing together work on age and life course in biological and sociocultural anthro is pushing me to wade into something unexpected.

I love it. I am SO into thinking through the social implications of different models of getting really old (like, 1) your body just falls apart through a bunch of different processes, which epidemiologists and evolutionary biologists are into, or 2) your body has a clock, and there’s a maximum life span we can achieve if we can take care of the pesky diseases and whatnot, which gerontologists are into). And it had never occurred to me before that humans demonstrate more variation in older ages (though, now that I think about it, it totally makes evolutionary sense and fits with my experiences).*** Sure, I’m into age and all this stuff is at least somewhat relevant to my research, but the real reason I’m so stoked is that it’s TOTALLY NEW to me!

And I think, when I am reminded of the likelihood there will be no good jobs waiting for me after my 8 years of graduate training, that this is a dream worth trying for. The joy of this – of a life of getting to learn TOTALLY NEW STUFF, of building on that stuff with research and of sharing it through teaching – is worth a lot of risk.

Do you have these moments too? What was your last moment of work related squee?

*Unclear about the differences between these and actually want to know more? Check out the American Anthropological Association‘s attempt to answer the question What is Anthropology?
**I may be selling myself a little short here, as I am trying to put together stuff like a course design for a four field anthropology intro classes built around age, but still …
***Both of these things are covered in a chapter I read called “Human Population Biology and the Evolution of Aging” by Wood et al in the edited volume Biological Anthropology and Aging: Perspectives of Human Variation over the Life Span by Crews and Garruto in 1994.