Matt Yglesias pulls out his new hobby horse: rich people have more choices than poor people, charter schools increase choices for poor people (even if they don’t work!), and for this reason we should, I take it, undertake all the union-smashing ideas beloved of the reform movement.
This is a weird argument for anyone to make. It’s a particularly weird argument for a liberal to make. I made this case awhile back on this here blog, and I think my argument still stands. The Cliff Notes version: “rich people have more choices than poor people” is another way of saying “we live under capitalism.” Rich people are always going to have more choices because that’s the point of money. It is indeed the job of government to provide for certain material needs that the poor cannot procure for themselves. And the government should do the best job it possibly can. But government shouldn’t be in the business of artificially providing choice under the bizarre notion that just having choice is a virtue in and of itself, and it really shouldn’t be in the business of providing choices that can’t be proven to work.
Talking about choice as if it is a benefit regardless of the objective reality of whether the choices are beneficial is bizarre. And the idea that tax dollars should pay for that choice, in that absence of evidence as to why, is just a bridge too far. This seems like simple sense to me.
I’m aware, though, that what seems like simple sense to me isn’t always simple or sensible to others. So: first, dividing public funding for schools, even if you preserve per pupil funding, can effectively reduce resources, because education funding is largely based on pooled costs. Second, removing high performing students from struggling schools can have negative effects on those left behind. Additionally, damage is done to civil society when we further divide people through government programs rather than bring them together. We share public goods not only because it is cheaper to provide the same public transit, police department, fire department, water purification and filtration, public works, and so on for everybody, but precisely because government should not be in the business of dividing its people as capital does but in ensuring some amount of shared experience and shared goods. You can’t build a functioning civil society where citizens of different stations never interact with each other.
I’ll ask again, as I asked in the prior post: why does this argument count against public education and not against any other governmental enterprise? Again, rich people have many more choices in transportation than poor people. Should the government fund a system of charter buses that perform about the same service as the regular bus? Where are Yglesias’s posts calling for such a thing? Or perhaps it’s a voucher model he favors. Should we allow any average citizen to withdraw his or her “share” of the public transit budget and use that money to purchase a car? If choice is so compelling, absent of any evidence that the choices being presented actually work, why isn’t Yglesias out beating the bushes for such a policy? Even this is a generous comparison: I’m quite sure that a Toyota can do as good of or better a job than the city bus. The jury is still out on charter schools.
If you’re inclined, you can apply this thinking to anything: the FDA, homeland security, building inspection, defense, the fire department….. There are people who embrace this kind of “privatize everything” vision. They’re called conservatives.
Look: if we had clear, repeatable, and compelling empirical data about the virtues of charter schools, or private school vouchers, or the negative effects of public school unions on student performance, then we’d have hard choices to make as a society– particularly considering that the right of teachers to organize is precisely that, a right that can’t be taken away whenever it is convenient. But we don’t have such evidence. In fact, the extant evidence, while limited and in need of expansion, should be deeply discouraging to supporters of school reform. Yglesias himself links to a piece by Felix Salmon that is admirable in its commitment to the idea that empirical questions need to be answered empirically, and its refusal to gloss over the sad reality of the evidence.
Yglesias says that the failure to talk about choice is what drives him crazy about how charter schools and education reform are discussed in this country. What drives me crazy about how Yglesias discusses charter schools and education reform, besides his absolute and seemingly unwavering commitment to snarking at anyone who questions reform at all, is that he knows the discouraging empirical evidence regarding education reform but seems never to let that knowledge affect his analysis. How is it possible to preserve the same tired reform rhetoric without any evidence to support that rhetoric? And like most liberal school reformers, he never seems to realize that a great number of his fellow travelers don’t possess his genuine concern for poor and minority students. Conservative and libertarian “reformers” love ed reform liberals because they give cover to a project that fits entirely with their principles but entirely against those of Matt Yglesias: destroying public institutions, smashing unions, and attacking liberal Democratic constituencies like public school teachers.
Rich people will never stop enjoying their privilege. If you have a problem with that you should come to the dark side and accept that you are a postcapitalist. (Like me!) Rich people usually take their kids out of the worst public schools precisely because the worst off students aren’t there. If you increase the mobility of poor and minority students, you’re only going to compel rich parents to erect more barriers to entry. I promise: even if you give people a broad choice of schools to send their children to, I’m sorry to say that many parents will still endeavor to keep their children away from poor and minority students. That’s just the reality of American life; it’s riven with class conflict and unconscious racism. If you give poor people a $10,000 private school voucher, the top private schools will start charging $10,001. They will do so because, from a marketing standpoint, keeping out poor kids is a feature, not a bug; and they will do so because they know, better than any opponent of school reform, that the ability to keep out the hardest students to educate is an enormous advantage.
And I must insist, because this is the most important point of all: there’s no compelling empirical evidence that increasing student mobility improves student outcomes. Like so much of what school reformers push, the narrative sounds compelling, but the evidence is lacking. As so often happens, one of Yglesias’s commenters, named David E. Frazer, poses a serious rebuttal:
I think you are missing the chicken-and-egg conundrum. Rich [people] may decide to move to nice suburban towns because they have good schools but the reason nice suburban towns have good schools is because rich people live there. Try this little exercise: Millburn [a/k/a Short Hills] is usually lauded as the best school district in NJ. Let’s suppose we traded the 4200 students in the Millburn school district with a random selection of 4200 kids from the nearby Newark school system. Want to take a bet whether or not the following year Millburn was ranked #1?
So why push for student mobility at all, absent compelling evidence that it works to improve outcomes? I think it’s the same old impetus that drives so much of this debate: guilt ridden liberals who overestimate the power of good intentions. Education reform is where wonkery goes to die, where the good old college spirit runs aground on the reality of poverty and a racial achievement gap that just refuse to bow to the power of nice white ladies. Wonks look at human life as a series of problems to be solved. But they are helpless before problems that require revolutionary change to be solved, or that force them to confront the fact that the capitalist system they celebrate has always insisted that there will be winners and losers.