Charters: A new pro-choice movement.

This is what the freedom to choose means to people (a charter lottery drawing in NY).

There’s a lot of debate brewing over charter schools recently, especially here in NC where the state Senate is trying to lift the arbitrary cap on charters. As debate rages on, the political lines are clearly crystalized. On the left are believers that better outcomes can be achieved through the current technocracy. On the right, you have those who vehemently support the charter school movement, and probably also the attendant ire these schools draws from teachers’ unions.

Issue narrative vs. issue nature

I have to admit, I think these lines are curiously drawn. I can see the narrative of how big-government liberals are natural technocrats. I understand that conservatives have always been pro-school choice, and have easily availed themselves of the opportunity to add charter schools to traditional support of home schooling. It also fits well into the conservative narrative that the last thing anyone needs, especially at an impressionable age, is for the government to be dictating to people.

The problem for me is twofold: that both sides seem to spend an awful lot of time trying to justify what they perceive as their natural paradigmatic predispositions on this policy issue, and that it can be settled along consequentialist grounds.

Do charter schools produce better educational outcomes? That’s an empirical question. If yes, then it lends credence to the conservative position. If no, then choice proves to be at the very best no better than what the technocrats can do. The evidence seems at least  mixed.

Don’t get me wrong: I am an empiricist. I believe in measurable outcomes and recurrent observation. There’s a lot of unbiased virtue in that. But I do believe that some issues involve deontology. And I think historically, positive liberty — especially this notion of “choice” — is such an issue. The last time we had a serious debate in this country about what people should be allowed to choose to do, it was regarding abortion. And back then, the argument was strongly grounded in the idea that women had a “right” to choose. That, as rights bearers, women deserved to have that choice made available and that government had a duty to observe the right.

My modest proposal: change your lens

I see an incredible amount of overlap between the advocacy for choice then and now, and I think doing so offers a chance to view an incredibly (pun alert) polarized policy issue through a moral lens. First, it’s true that you might want to make some consequentialist arguments about reproductive rights. Especially for poor women, reproductive rights can be essential to breaking the cycle of poverty. The right to choose affords a level of personal agency essential to taking full ownership over one’s future and fate. But you could make these same arguments about charter schools as well: Education is essential for lifting the poor, and although children typically do not make many decisions for themselves regarding their future, their parents generally do exercise a similar type of agency on their behalf. What’s intriguing is that the rhetoric is reversed. Discussion of choice in reproduction tends to center on deontology. What most say, not unjustifiably so, is that women deserve choices. Yes, it’s good for them in some quantifiable ways, but having the personal choice is itself inherently liberating. I see little reason why this argument isn’t applicable to choice in education. Yet the debate is instead centered on trying desperately to measure the quality of the output versus the inherent justice in the system itself.

It’s a striking case study in the difference between politics and political philosophy. Politically, reproductive choice fit nicely with a progressive feminist movement previously extant on the left, and charter school choice fits in nicely with an anti-government, pro-education-alternative movement previously extant on the right. And both sides will continue to march out statistics that fit neatly into the narratives they have respectfully committed to. But philosophically, this is a matter of whether or not children and parents deserve the liberty to make choices regarding their future, and the two issues of choice here seem to involve similar moral questions that belie the advocacy they have received.

The bad news for the left is that it is today, just as it was forty years ago, incredibly difficult to argue against the freedom to choose. It’s even more difficult because the charter school movement is almost by definition going to produce good and bad measurable outcomes — a market of ideas requires that bad ones exist and are subsequently rejected in favor of the comparatively good. This makes it more problematic to say definitively that the movement is bad merely on consequentialist grounds.

So what are we left with? We’re left with people desperate for the chance to be given the opportunity to make a personal choice regarding their future, even under the uncertainty that it may not be the right choice and that following through entails risk. Sound familiar? Think about that, libs and cons alike.


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