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School Choice & Charters Opinion

Sanctimonious Scolding Isn’t a Great Strategy for Promoting School Choice

By Rick Hess — May 17, 2012 4 min read
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The other day, the Fordham Institute’s Adam Emerson attacked Louisiana’s Zachary school district for having the temerity to not participate in the state’s new voucher program. After expressing initial interest, Zachary opted not to partake. The voucher program, championed by Governor Bobby Jindal, would allow students who attend Louisiana public schools earning a C, D, or F on the state’s accountability system to attend a private or another public school.

Emerson denounced Zachary for “erect[ing] a fence around its public schools” and thundered at “those who make ‘sacrifices’ for the best [but] want to keep their investment exclusive.” (I’m not sure what’s up with the air quotes around “sacrifices.”) He also attacked Michigan’s Grosse Pointe school district for similarly opposing Governor Rick Snyder’s proposal to make mandatory the state’s voluntary interdistrict choice program. Emerson denounced a Grosse Pointe resolution for seeking “to preserve the ‘personal sacrifices’ of its citizens who opted to invest ‘in premium housing stock.’” (Again, I don’t know what’s up with the air quotes.)

In the end, Emerson laments, “If [advocates] can’t convince better-performing schools to open their doors to low-income, low-achieving children, then their legislative victories will be short-lived.” While he may or may not be right on that score (kind of depends on the emergence of new school options), Emerson’s analysis suggests zero comprehension of how to make that happen or of how to win over suburbanites.

What’s the problem? Simply put, it’s the gooey-minded, self-righteous disrespect shown for parents, taxpayers, and voters. Emerson penned not a word acknowledging the legitimate concerns of Zachary’s families or taxpayers or the right (or obligation) of parents to do what they think best for their children. The whole thing reminded me of where choice advocates have so often gone wrong, ignoring the lessons of history while sanctimoniously lecturing middle-class families. Driven to a fit of nostalgia, I went to the vaults and unearthed a piece I wrote in April 2003. It seemed worth revisiting:

School voucher proponents are on a hot streak...Some giddiness is to be expected. Nonetheless, in a fit of self-righteousness, voucher proponents may be heading for a train wreck. Strange as it may seem, voucher advocates are in much the same place as that of the architects of the Great Society a generation ago. Voucherites find their ideas ascendant, possess dynamic spokespersons, can credibly claim to be promoting social justice, and yet... Like the architects of the Great Society programs before them, they are puzzled as to why suburbanites and middle America haven't embraced their proposals. Increasingly, voucher advocates criticize white suburban families for being insufficiently concerned with the education of disadvantaged urban children. This is no way to wage a policy fight. Thirty years ago, the Great Society's champions berated middle-class America smack into the arms of their opposition. Enthralled by their own virtue, liberal reformers forgot about simple democratic notions like self-interest and skepticism. They believed that if they could only make middle America see its selfishness, voters would fall into line. It didn't happen that way. Showing the good sense typical of a democratic majority, they opted for Republicans and moderate Democrats who addressed their concerns rather than belittling them. As a result, much that was promising in the Great Society fell into disrepute...Proponents of school vouchers risk repeating this mistake. While vouchers are routinely supported by 65 percent of urban residents, support levels are barely half that amount in the suburbs. Voucher proponents have grown increasingly frustrated with this resistance, and have yet to deal with the fact that suburban resistance to choice is entirely reasonable and unlikely to be nagged away. Families that purchase homes in good suburban school districts typically buy, in large part, because of the "seat license" it confers in local schools. Choice-based reforms allow students to attend schools where their family hasn't bought a "seat license", reducing the value of existing licenses. Duke University economist Thomas Nechyba has modeled how this dilution could dramatically alter property values by making homes in bad districts worth more and those in good districts worth less. Those who own homes in districts with good schools risk losing tens or even hundreds of thousands of dollars in home equity, may no longer be able to assure their children services they had purchased, and will find that local schools may no longer enjoy first crack at quality teachers or provide as uniformly desirable a peer group. One can be troubled by existing inequities and still recognize that these families may justifiably feel they have fairly purchased their advantages. If we recognize that homeowners in good suburban districts will tend to oppose choice-based reform, will likely prove pivotal in determining the fate of choice-based reform, and that even copious amounts of finger-wagging reprimands won't change their minds, what are the implications? Choice proponents will have to respect rather than ridicule the concerns of homeowners in high-performing districts. The requisite compromises may prove a frustrating compromise for those committed to social justice and may require some soul-searching on the part of voucher proponents... For school choice supporters, seething indignation is not the way to make a real difference for America's children. To frolic down that morally superior path is to opt for the self-indulgent over the substantive, a course that cost the architects of the Great Society their electoral and, eventually, their moral authority. Whether proponents of choice-based reform fare better is in their hands.

Back in ‘03, I suggested a few strategies that choice advocates might consider. They included convincing families that their schools were worse than they thought or that competition will so improve all schools that everyone will come out ahead (though I wrote, “It’s unlikely that such a rhetorical approach will go very far.”) I noted that encouraging choice-based provisions which featured schools focused on “child-care services, alternative school-day schedules or school calendars, [or] advanced courses that are not [otherwise] available” might make choice more relevant to suburban families. I suggested perhaps providing “some kind of compensation to homeowners whose property rights are constricted by state action...Such a move would offer some succor to those whose property value falls sharply, especially for working families that had scraped to purchase a home in a district known for its schools.”

I expect pols and parental rights groups to favor rhetoric and indignation. But ideas and fresh thinking are kind of what Fordham is there for.

For instance, one new twist is that post-NCLB accountability focuses on low-income, minority, and low-performing students. Since that is precisely the population Emerson wants Zachary, Grosse Pointe, or other high-performing systems to import, it’s eminently reasonable for families to fear newcomers would quickly be given a higher priority than currently enrolled students. Choice advocates might consider offering schools and systems safeguards which would protect them from being labeled as “failing” for taking on less proficient kids and which would reduce concerns that resources and instructional time would be redirected from current students. I’m fully aware that some gap-closers would scream bloody murder about such safeguards, but they’re certainly worth discussing.

States might offer districts which opt into choice systems waivers from some onerous restrictions or financial inducements (e.g. “carrots,” if we’re playing the air quote game). As I’ve noted before, shifting from “school choice” to “educational choice” may make it possible to also address the needs of those who already like their schools. Yet, any such thinking was conspicuously absent in Emerson’s piece. If this is the stance of sophisticated choice advocates at leading think tanks in 2012, seems to me that school choice has got bigger problems than the good residents of Zachary.

Last word: Some have high hopes for an Emerson-like “shaming” strategy, thinking it’ll leave the residents of Zachary or Grosse Pointe so cowed that they’ll cave. I doubt it. I’d look to the history of school busing. Rather than obey the moral instruction of do-gooders, middle-class and suburban families tend to put themselves and their kids first (and, for the record, I don’t see the problem with that; hell, it’s kind of the logic of school choice, after all). If accepting school choice means that suburban communities are going to be pressed to open their schools up in ways that may adversely impact their kids and home values, those families may well stop being disinterested observers of the school choice debates and instead become active opponents.

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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.