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It always annoys me when people write what they think are “even-handed” pieces that gyp both sides of an argument by pretending they have equal merit. That’s not fair-mindedness, it’s mental homelessness.
The Atlantic, which I generally enjoy reading, published an article entitled “How School Choice Became an Explosive Issue” during School Choice Week, this week. The magazine’s first mistake in this regard was to present writer Kevin Carey’s think-tank, Education Sector, as an “independent” organization. Independent sounds hip because it implies this same detachment, which is the very essence of cool.
If you think about it critically, however, independent is meaningless. Independent of what, a political party? So are most think tanks, including Heartland. Independent of ideas? Of thought? Of sound analysis? Quite possibly, especially when you read the rest of the article.
“There is a much larger system of school choice embedded in the American real estate market,” he says. “While some parents pay school tuition directly, many more pay it through their monthly mortgage and property tax bills.”
That’s right, folks–If you want better schools, just pick up and move! What’s the big deal? Never mind that most of you can’t afford the mortgages and taxes or might prefer your current neighborhood (or need to stay because it’s close to work) despite the school. Never mind that the government compels your tax dollars for an education you dislike through federal and state income taxes and, in some cases sales taxes, as well as property taxes. Never mind that these expensive suburban schools are actually pretty mediocre. Forget your possible interest in a private school. Move!
Americans have school choice like we have tax choice. Even if you can abandon your current job to seek another town or even state, the taxes don’t go away. They just shift levels from “slavery” to “various forms of indentured servitude.”
To be fair, Carey notes this is difficult for most families and contributes to white-minority achievement gaps. Which is the weird thing about his writing, because it simultaneously acknowledges such realities while criticizing attempts to address them.
“At its best, the school choice movement is dedicated to leveling the educational playing field by giving more parents access to choices they can’t afford in the free market.” Notice how he quietly accuses free-market advocates of actually supporting a rigged market, though any system of vouchers would be much closer to it than the current government pegging system. If we’re going to talk about rigged markets, why criticize vouchers and charters, which are obviously much more freeing than the current system? To gain “even-handed” points by knifing school choice supporters in the proverbial back rhetorically.
“That’s why this week is School Choice Week. While school choice has steadily advanced over the last two decades, primarily through the expansion of charters, the fact remains that the large majority of middle- and lower-income parents don’t have any meaningful choices for their children. They’re stuck with local schools that too often range from inadequate to shockingly bad, and they can’t afford to buy access to better ones.” Well-said.
Carey also includes several factual inaccuracies. One: ” Students participating in the longest-lived and most well-studied voucher experiment, in Milwaukee, score no better on standardized tests than similar students who attended regular public schools.” Actually, that’s flat-out false. (Not only that, he’s cherry-picking his evidence: Of the ten gold-standard random assignment studies on voucher programs including Milwaukee, nine found significant positive academic results and one found no change.) And the reasons why have less to do with vouchers than the bending-over-backward of legislators to hold Milwaukee harmless for its failure, nearly doubling per-student spending in the public schools since the vouchers program began and strictly limiting program participation.
He repeats similar insinuations and falsehoods with regard to D.C.’s Opportunity Scholarship program, which turns out more and better graduates and happier parents. President Obama chipped it out as a favor to teacher unions, engendering the “partisanship” Carey decries.
He claims Arizona’s tuition tax-credit program also “spawned a corrupt system of log-rolling wherein private school parents gave donations to schools on behalf of each other’s children.” First of all, that was illegal under the legislation creating the program, and second he gives no evidence of how extensive this “corrupt system” was. It could have been three parents. As far as I have been able to find, it was extremely limited. And, compared with giant ethics and financial monstrosities in the public school systems (New York’s rubber rooms, for one, Florida administrators stealing public funds, for another), though waste and fraud exists in any system, public or private, it seems the public system’s got it much worse.
No one is against accountability for public funds. The question is, however, what is accountability and what is regulating into oblivion? So far, the answer seems to be, “We’re learning, but school choice is better than the current system.” Hardly the way this gentleman’s finger-pointing would lead you.
He also says parents need better, and less self-interested, information about school choices when they get them. Sorry to puncture his ignorance, but that’s actually already happening. Here’s one example.
Not only that, he and charter opponents like to cite older evidence saying results are “mixed” for charter schools. Of course, charters are new, and going through a turbulent phase-in period as states and school leaders learn what works and stop what doesn’t. The most recent and best evidence, however, is not mixed, but points to what choice proponents have been saying all along: charters are better than the average public school.
In sum: Nice try attempting to show your unbiased expertise. Next time, just bring some actual expertise.
Image by Tony Waghorn.