May 6, 2021

Who Should Decide If A School Is Good – Parents Or The Public?

By Bellwether

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Here’s video and a recap of yesterday’s debate about the public versus parents on who should decide if a school is good – and how.

It’s not a straightforward set of questions and there are complicated trade-offs, more than you can cover in an hour. Yet you get highlights of the major contours here. To me, it was striking how, in a clear echo of our polarized times, people generally want both: public rules and also choice. That’s how we do it in most sectors of American life. Yet the political energy is mostly on the just choice or no choice sides.

One of the more interesting moments for me was when Reason editor Katherine Mangu-Ward expressed openness to various universal service mandates accompanying an expansion of choice. She basically said her project was to move things in the direction she wants them to go, but it wasn’t a no-compromise position.* Contrast that with an education establishment whose views on choice, and reform more generally, range from no thanks to hell no. That may explain in part why we see a slow but steady expansion of choice.

Probably something to pay attention to coming out of the pandemic where parents have had frustrating experiences with schools and are signaling a greater openness to choice.

But – let’s be real. People like the idea that choice can help us sidestep our thorny debates about what schools should teach and all that. Sounds great in theory, and with innocuous copies like Catholic Schools. But when less comfortable copies start opening down the street we’re going to be right back in that age old conversation about what rules society wants and who gets to decide. These are old questions. People like to tell other people what to do and a society has to make choices about that on something as fundamental as schools.

*Milton Friedman was more of a no-compromise type. Discussing a seminal school choice work in an interview once Friedman told me that he liked it a lot until the last chapter – the part on creating a regulated market. The compromise and openness to some regulation strategy seems to have aged better though.

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