Opinion Blog

Rick Hess Straight Up

Education policy maven Rick Hess of the American Enterprise Institute think tank offers straight talk on matters of policy, politics, research, and reform. Read more from this blog.

Education Opinion

On the Inevitability of Social Movements

By Guest Blogger — November 18, 2013 4 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

Note: Neerav Kingsland, CEO of New Schools for New Orleans, is guest posting this week.

In part because of my heritage - my mother is Indian and my father is African-American - I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about social movements, both in India and the United States. The causes of societal change are of course complex, but in a recent conversation with my father, I (perhaps naively) asked him: when did you know that legal racial discrimination would come to an end? When did it become inevitable?

His answer: the Voting Rights Act of 1965. With this bill, he believed that the end to legal racial discrimination was inevitable, despite the fact that full legal equality had yet to be realized. To understand why, see below: over the period of six years, the Voting Rights Act transformed the electoral power of African-Americans in the South.

Number of Registered African-American Voters: 1960 and 1966

Other civil rights milestones could be contenders for the “inevitable” moment. But the Voting Rights Act is unique in that it initiated an enormous transfer of sustainable, legal power. The mass enfranchisement of African-Americans in the South eroded the structural foundation of legal discrimination. In the end, democratic representation bested legal racism. There was no going back.
In considering current social movements, are any on their way to inevitability?

Andy Rotherham, a columnist for Time Magazine, made the case that both gay rights and school choice are inevitable - that time, and not the outcome itself, is the only remaining variable.

Andy is right on gay rights. Already, courts increasingly rule in favor of gay equality. Institutions continue to drop restrictions on gay membership. And, as the graph below details, in eight years the percentage of Americans against gay marriage dropped an astounding 17 percentage points.

Nearly all signs point to the inevitability of gay legal equality. There will be no going back.

As for school choice: is it inevitable?

Over the next two days, I will attempt to answer this question. I will not spend time re-making the case for why I believe choice will raise student achievement. My best efforts on that issue can be found here and here. Rather, this series will solely focus on the question of inevitability.

But before I begin in full, a couple of points.

A Different Kind of Social Movement

The movement for school choice differs from the social movement for African-American civil rights. With the fight for racial equality, each side desired a different outcome. Those for racial equality wanted just that - racial equality. Those against racial equality supported a tiered social system where African-Americans were not afforded the inalienable rights laid out by our nation’s founding documents.

With the social movement for high-quality school choice, both sides desire the same outcome: an excellent education for every child. The debate is one of strategy, not of human value. Both sides would do well to keep this in mind.

Defining an Expansive Vision of School Choice

The movement for school choice may be defined narrowly (choice across schools operated by a single entity) or broadly (choice across different school operators). I will define it broadly. Consider the medical profession. Most people prefer (and demand) that they be able to choose doctors across medical offices and not simply choose from doctors within a single medical office. The obvious takeaway is this: choice across institutions is more important than choice within institutions.

And one should not be confused for the other. When only one organization is in charge of delivery, options will be limited based upon the strengths and weaknesses of that institution. And the fruits of cross-institutional collaboration and competition will be squashed. Moreover, choice governed by one institution is not sustainable choice - as that institution could revoke choice at any time. This is why I’m drawn to charter schools, which involve a legal transfer of power.

So I will define school choice as the following: parents have choices between schools, the vast majority of which consist of a diverse group of educator operated institutions. A 100% charter school system is one concrete realization of this vision.

I have previously called this vision of choice “Relinquishment.” For this series, I’ll stick with the term - as well as maintain a focus on urban education systems.

*A side note: it is possible that suburban systems will not gravitate toward Relinquishment because these parents have already utilized institutional choice. It’s just choice based on property acquisition rather than open public access.

Is it Inevitable?

To return to the re-framed question: Is Relinquishment inevitable? Is it inevitable that we will transform the way education is delivered to our nation’s most at-risk students?

Given our current education landscape, the answer to the question should come as no surprise: Relinquishment is not inevitable.

How could it be when only one city in the nation, New Orleans, has adopted its principles?

Yet, despite Relinquishment’s lack of inevitability, there is more to the story: over the next two days, I will further explore why Relinquishment is not yet inevitable, why it could become inevitable within 15-20 years, and what can be done to increase the probability that it will become inevitable.

I hope you join me tomorrow.

-- Neerav Kingsland

The opinions expressed in Rick Hess Straight Up are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.