School Choice & Charters Opinion

Public-Spirited Choice

By David J. Ferrero — March 26, 2003 8 min read
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Some school choice skeptics worry that choice will erode the civic purposes of schooling.

Some school choice skeptics worry that choice will erode the civic purposes of schooling. Given the thrust of the most prominent choice advocacy, this concern may be justified. Three approaches prevail: The first, and by far most prevalent, is the market model, wherein families are “customers” and schools are “service providers” competing for market share by catering to diverse tastes and preferences while delivering high test scores. The second is a parents'-rights model, in which parents’ interests categorically trump those of the state. The third is a fairness model, where choice is understood as a way to give poor families the same kinds of options that wealthier ones have.

What all three models have in common is a conception of schooling that stresses the individual and private benefits over common, public ones. Schools provide, families consume. And consumers have rights, not obligations. The fairness model breaks somewhat from this pattern by focusing on the public good of equal opportunity, but it too tends to focus on what schools owe poor families, without much regard for what families might owe in return. When proponents refer to poor, minority, or disabled children as “underserved,” they subtly reinforce this tendency.

This privatized conception of schooling is not limited to choice advocates—it increasingly reflects how Americans have come to understand schooling and their relationship to it. From standards-based reform, to multiculturalism, to school choice, school reformers consistently seek changes aimed at extracting greater benefits for specific interest groups, be it business, a minority group, or the family. Some observers, like the political philosopher Michael Sandel, have argued that this tendency further reflects a more general drift away from public commitment to civic virtue and the common good in all areas of American life, as seen in trends ranging from single-issue political organizations to the privatization of public services. If these observers are correct, then market-, rights-, and fairness-based school choice reflects the atrophy of the public sphere more broadly.

This perceived decline in public spiritedness has provoked a bevy of commentary on the importance of a robust public culture to the maintenance of a liberal-democratic society. Liberal values and capacity for democratic self-government, the argument goes, actually require active, sustained cultivation from an early age. Children need to acquire the virtues of tolerance and cooperation, develop some degree of autonomy and taste for public service, and master the essentials of constitutional law and processes. In short, citizens are made, not born. And public schools are regarded as the primary institutional vehicle for making citizens. School choice as it has come to be understood in the United States seems inimical to that strategy. It doesn’t have to be.

Over the past century, the favored model of public schooling has been the common school—the zoned, district-based school where students from all walks of life mix and mingle and learn to get along together in what amounts to a little microcosm of our pluralistic society. The enormous gap between the ideal and reality notwithstanding, the common school holds a venerable place in the popular imagination. And while over the past several generations we have made a national ritual of denouncing the common school for failures both real and imagined, school choice cast in the language of providers and consumers, servers and served, seems to awaken in some a dormant allegiance not just to the common school but to the civic purposes it stands for. This reaction should hearten those concerned about the health of our republic, as it suggests that public spiritedness, while atrophied, may not be quite dead yet.

Does this vestigial concern for civic ends constitute grounds for rejecting school choice? Not necessarily. It does provide some resources for rejuvenating our commitment to the public purposes of schooling, whether government-run or not. This would be a most welcome development. In fact, a sizable literature has emerged over the past decade that has attempted to make respectable again talk of civic virtue, robust citizen education, and the common good that also concludes that some form of school choice may actually be a requirement of a fair and robustly public-minded system of schooling. Many of the philosophers, legal scholars, and sociologists behind this literature—Harry Brighouse, Eamonn Callan, William Galston, John Davison Hunter, Stephen Macedo, Robert Reich, Rosemary Salomone, and others—represent center-right to center-left political and philosophical perspectives that explicitly reject the market model, carefully circumscribe the scope of parents’ rights, and vigorously defend the interest of the state in cultivating good citizens. It seems paradoxical that when these thinkers turn to public policy, they endorse school choice.

All school choice models have in common a conception of schooling that stresses the individual and private benefits over common, public ones.

The conclusion for choice stems from the need to strike a reasonable balance between the liberal-republican state’s interest in producing competent, loyal citizens who will uphold liberal values, and its responsibility to accommodate religious, cultural, and value pluralism in a free society. The common school, though invented in the 19th century by people with legitimate concerns for shaping an American character while equalizing opportunity, was designed to stress the common. It has never dealt well with the plural. From Catholic resistance to Protestant indoctrination in the 19th century to charges of secularism, deculturalization, and “linguistic genocide” today, the common school has always had a knack for galvanizing opposition to itself.

The effects of these waves of opposition and their accommodation within the system have proved baleful: ceaseless litigation, increasingly complex regulation, incoherent curricula, timid school and district leaders, and dysfunctional school cultures.

These aren’t the only problems schools face, to be sure. But they are deeply significant and under-recognized. It is this condition, along with a liberal respect for some of the claims pressed by religious and cultural minorities, that has led these thinkers to endorse a greater diversity of schools. Which leads them to choice. But it isn’t choice based on consumer preferences or unabridgeable parents’ rights. It is, rather, choice based on the recognition that schooling is at heart a serious moral undertaking that the state should neither trammel nor trivialize. Call it “public-spirited choice.”

This approach to choice resembles the Western European model, where pluralism is regarded as contributing to the good of society, rather than threatening it. It rests on an age-old psychological truism, articulated recently by William Galston: “Genuine civic unity rests on unforced consent. States that permit their citizens to live in ways that express their values are likely to enjoy widespread support, even gratitude. By contrast, state coercion is likely to produce dissent, resistance, and withdrawal.”

The theory here is that citizens will give back in loyalty what they gain in liberty. It also assumes that reasonable religious, cultural, and other associative groups will find the resources from within their own traditions to endorse and cultivate the liberal values and republican capacities the polity needs to sustain itself from generation to generation, as the Catholic Church and several immigrant groups did in the 19th and 20th centuries.

The common school, invented in the 19th century, was designed to stress the common. It has never dealt well with the plural.

This widening of liberty by no means precludes the state from exercising its interests in cultivating a certain kind of citizen. To the contrary, public- spirited choice begins with this interest strongly in mind. But even the most demanding versions of what a citizen should know, value, and be able to do are parsimonious, and reasonable religious or cultural groups already subscribe to them.

These competencies include values of tolerance, cooperation, and service; knowledge of constitutional essentials; a sense of efficacy, a degree of autonomy, and ability to cast informed votes; and literacy, communication, and critical-thinking skills. These sorts of expectations, if included as part of a school accountability system supple enough to include them, should protect the state from schools that teach racial or sectarian hatred, anti- Americanism, or uncritical submission to a particular dogma.

Likewise, the state has the legal and regulatory authority to ensure that schools do not discriminate on the basis of race, religion, gender, or disability; deny parents, students, or teachers civic rights; or neglect their duty to educate students to be virtuous, competent American citizens in the liberal-republican mold. Any school, whether organized on the basis of faith, cultural or vocational emphasis, pedagogical doctrine, or other legitimate basis of association, would have to demonstrate its contribution and commitment to the public good as a condition of its existence.

To date, the case for public- spirited choice has been confined to academic presses and journals that few educators or policymakers read. But it is a powerful case, one that does something far more important than mediating conflicts between choice advocates and critics.

It is also an argument for a renewal of commitment to the civic purposes of schooling and to the public goods it can engender. It provides not only a potentially better institutional arrangement for mediating the sometimes conflicting goods of pluralism and a common culture, but an opportunity to counter consumerism and recover a way of thinking about schooling that honors its moral, formative dimensions.

David J. Ferrero is a career educator and scholar with a particular interest in the civic and moral dimensions of schooling. He lives and works in Seattle, and can be reached at dferrero@attbi.com.

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