Why (Some) Conservatives (Might) Be Right About Education


Image via Flickr user rofltosh

Image via Flickr user rofltosh

Harry Webb thinks that conservative advocacy for expanding ‘school choice’ is misguided because “[a] good education should not be the result of a savvy choice”. After all, if a school of choice is implementing a high-quality educational program, “then all students should have access to it as a default”.

I agree! And I don’t have much sympathy for the (generally conservative or libertarian) argument that choice is an end in itself.

That said, I think Harry’s dodging the real force of the case for school choice: namely, that choice can be instrumentally valuable as a means of encouraging more schools to adopt those aforementioned high-quality programs. That may or may not be the case in practice, but it’s not a preposterous line of thinking.

Of course, neither Harry nor I want kids’ educational opportunities to be limited by whether they happen to have good options available to them or whether they make those choices wisely. As it stands, though, the public school system sans choice isn’t always falling all over itself to raise program quality.

You might think that the best way to deal with the problem of inconsistent school quality is to forcibly increase standards from the top down. That may be possible, but the case for optimism is limited.

In the U.S., for example, education is mostly handled locally, so opportunities for centralized reform are somewhat limited logistically.

More seriously, the unfortunate reality is that while my sense is that Harry and I are mostly on the same page about high-quality educational programs, we are by no means a majority. This means that it’s awfully hard to build momentum for the sorts of reforms we’re probably imagining. Frankly, a lot of what Harry and I like is kind of unpopular.

As Harry himself points out, lots of educators believe things like this about math education. Or consider this questionable-but-probably-common interpretation of the new Common Core State Standards.  And I’m acutely aware of the fact that lots of educators wrongly believe the Next Generation Science Standards are awesome.

The fact of the matter is that education is full of (in Harry’s words) “wet, liberal types who believe that the ultimate aim of education is to develop creativity or 21st century skills or some other such nonsense”. So why should we think those very same people are going to voluntarily – without the threat of competition from choice – abandon their “nonsense” and start pushing the reforms Harry and I would like to see?

I’m not exactly crazy about expanding school choice. But I’m not exactly crazy about what passes for the educational consensus these days, either.

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