Wednesday, March 22, 2023

What the Poet Taught Me: Progressives Need School Choice

Many momentous, emotionally charged things happened at the inauguration of Joe Biden as the 46th President of the United States. An inauguration is always a spectacle, of course, but this transfer of power was especially powerful after the disgraceful riot at the Capitol just 14 days earlier. But even with all the political luminaries and pomp and circumstance, it was the poem of a young lady – Youth Poet Laureate Amanda Gorman – that stole the show, celebrating a national journey to unity even as we constantly battle emotions and obstacles that keep us apart.

Ironically, one thing that many progressives warn would be a mammoth obstacle to a harmonious, unified country is school choice. That is, allowing families to take the public funding for a child’s education to a school of their choice rather than having it sent directly to a government school to which a child is assigned. Choice, progressives fear, would “balkanize” Americans, sending children to schools full of people who look the same and see the world identically, rather than exposing them to diverse people and thought.

Why is that ironic? Because Amanda Gorman herself attended a private – and progressive – high school: the New Roads School in Santa Monica, California.

Gorman is not alone in going private to access a school with progressive teaching and culture. The actor Matt Damon somewhat famously sent his own children to private school. This despite both he and his mother, a well‐​known education professor, prominently opposing school choice.

Why go private? Because, said Damon, “progressive education no longer exists in the public system.”

A huge problem for those who want progressive schooling is that mostpeople probably do not want it. Progressive schools tend to emphasize student‐​driven, loosely structured, exploratory learning, but the average parent is almost certainly more accustomed to “traditional” education focused on facts, figures, and even drilling. And a public system, which is controlled by politicians, is largely doomed to be measured by outcomes that can fit in a soundbite – the standardized test scores are up or down – not narratives about kids planting community gardens or practicing “heutagogy — taking agency over their own education.”

The reality on the ground seems to bear this out. Progressive education is, it appears, overwhelmingly the domain of private schools. While comprehensive data on such progressive schools do not appear to exist, the Progressive Education Network has 102 elementary and secondary members in the United States. Of those, 86 are private institutions, and only 14 are public. And of the public schools, four are charters – chosen schools.

If progressives want easier access to the type of education they think is the best, they should support a system they may well think is the worst: private school choice, such as voucher programs or scholarship tax credits. Then, rather than the vast majority of schools having to supply whatever is acceptable to the largest group of people – which is rarely progressive education – everyone, including teachers, could much more easily provide and consume what they desired.

This would be a boon not just for progressive education, but the national peace and unity that Gorman and so many others aspire to. People who want one type of education would no longer be forced to battle those who want something different because no longer would exerting school district, or even state‐​government, supremacy be the only way to get it.

Progressives should champion school choice. First, simply because letting diverse people choose the education they want is the right thing to do. Second, because it would enable progressives themselves to access the education they want for their own children.

Neal McCluskey
Neal McCluskey is the director of Cato’s Center for Educational Freedom.


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