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.