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The Moral Limits of School Choice

By Sam Chaltain — October 16, 2013 5 min read
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I support school choice - but it’s complicated.

I live in Washington, D.C., where almost half of the city’s students attend charter schools. I helped launch a charter school here. My son attends another one, and the city is beginning to see some real collaboration between its charter schools and the district. Good things are happening.

At the same time, I worry about what might happen if too many of us simply assume that the invisible hand of the modern school marketplace - or, worse still, the incentivizing hand of the modern school official - is a sufficient strategy for ensuring that all children receive equal access to a high-quality public education.

I hear the horror stories of places like Michigan, where four out of five charter schools are run by for-profit entities (read that again). I see the sizable (albeit shrinking) discrepancy between the expulsion rates of charter and district schools here in D.C. And I take seriously the warnings of scholars like Harvard’s Michael Sandel, who urges us to think much more carefully about the role market-based thinking should have - scratch that, does have - in our lives.

“Markets don’t just allocate goods,” Sandel writes in What Money Can’t Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets. “They also express and promote certain attitudes towards the goods being exchanged.” And what has occurred over the past thirty years is that without quite realizing it, we have shifted from having a market economy to being a market society. “The difference is this: A market economy is a tool - a valuable and effective tool - for organizing productive activity. A market society is a way of life in which market values seep into every aspect of human endeavor. It’s a place where social relations are made over in the image of the market.”

Anyone who has closely followed the sturm und drang of American school reform over the past decade has seen evidence of what Sandel is describing. Indeed, the growing reliance on - and resistance to - data-driven decision-making is a direct result of an ascendant technocratic faith in applying scientific rigor to the previously opaque art of teaching and learning. Economist Gary Becker sums up this thinking well when he asserts: “The economic approach is a comprehensive one that is applicable to all human behavior, be it behavior involving money prices or imputed shadow prices, repeated or infrequent decisions, large or minor decisions, emotional or mechanical ends, rich or poor persons, men or women, adults or children, brilliant or stupid persons, patients or therapists, businessmen or politicians, teachers or students.”

That’s a mouthful, and it captures the sea change Sandel wants us to see. Whereas in the not-too-distant past, economic thinking was restricted to economic topics - inflation, investment, trade - today it is being used to outline a new science of human behavior: one that assumes modern society will work best when human beings are allowed to weigh the costs and benefits of all things (including where to send their children to school), and then choose whatever they believe will yield the greatest personal benefit.

The part of me that agrees with that logic is the part that supports the basic idea of school choice. After all, we have tolerated a system of unequal opportunity in this country for too long, and there’s real merit in the argument that one’s zip code should not become one’s destiny. School choice in cities like mine gives everyone the same chance at a high-quality education, and empowers each family to set its own “shadow prices” - the imaginary values that are implicit in the alternatives we face and the choices we make - and then make their own decisions about where to send their children to school. As the rally cry at recent march for charter schools in New York City put it, MY CHILD, MY CHOICE.

Who could argue with that?

But here’s where it gets complicated. In the end, should we define public education as a public good, or a private commodity? Will our efforts to unleash self-interest (which is, after all, what the economist seeks to economize) strengthen or weaken the connective tissue of our civic life? And will the current trajectory of the charter school movement unleash a virtuous cycle of reforms that improves all schools, or merely add another layer in our historic apartheid system of schooling?

On these questions and others, I agree with former Chinese premier Zhou Enlai, who, when asked by reporters in 1971 to offer his assessment of the impact of the French Revolution of 1789, said: “It is still too soon to say.” But I also agree with the British sociologist Richard Titmuss, who has argued that “the ways in which society organizes and structures its social institutions can encourage or discourage the altruistic in man, foster integration or alienation,” and strengthen or “erode the sense of community.”

Our changing notion of community should be the central concern of anyone who cares about school choice. How can greater choice bring us closer to each other, and to a revitalized notion of civic virtue and egalitarianism? How can we ensure that school choice does not contribute to an even wider divide between the haves and the have-nots, and an even wider discrepancy between those who know how to negotiate the increasingly commodified assets of modern life, and those who are merely left to take whatever comes their way? And how can school choice reflect this basic truth about democracy - that while it does not require perfect equality, it does require that citizens share in a common life, one that is grounded as much in the “we” as the “me”?

These are the questions we must explicitly ask - and answer - if we want school choice to become a force for good. And we can’t do that without explicitly debating the extent to which market-based thinking can get us there. As Michael Sandel reminds us, “when market reasoning is applied to [an issue like] education, it’s less plausible to assume that everyone’s preferences are equally worthwhile. In morally charged arenas such as these, some ways of valuing goods may be higher, more appropriate than others.”

Follow Sam on Facebook.

The opinions expressed in Of, By, For: In Search of the Civic Mission of K-12 Schools 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.

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