NEAL MCCLUSKEY, CATO INSTITUTE
If you forced two hungry people into an arena, especially who already disliked each other, and told them only he who emerged triumphant got fed, would you be surprised if they fought? The surprise, of course, would be if they did not.
That is, essentially, what public schooling does: Forces diverse people into political arenas called “school districts,” and increasingly “states,” to determine whose children will get the intellectual food they need. Yet education analysts and commentators have long ignored the distinct possibility that public schooling spurs constant conflict, and the corollary, that choice would foster peace in education.
The deafening debate over critical race theory (CRT), and to a lesser extent the treatment of transgender students, seems to be changing that. While I have written for years about how public schooling divides and choice can bring more peace, it has rarely generated much discussion. But now others are increasingly tackling those themes.
Of course, more writing does not mean more accepting the need for choice.
Last week, the American Enterprise Institute’s Robert Pondiscio weighed in on choice-as-peacemaker. He raised substantive objections, but also deemed the position as “naïve” and a “talking point.” That said, he linked to Cato’s Public Schooling Battle Map and wrote, “Cato notes, not insensibly, that ‘public schooling often forces people into wrenching, zero‐sum conflict.’”
Pondiscio, it appears, thinks the Map may well be on to something: public schooling really might fuel social conflict. So what are his objections to choice-as-peacemaker? They are four:
- We socialize the cost of elementary and secondary education – everyone, with or without school-aged children, must pay – so all have standing to help decide, through government, what is or is not taught
- Education is at least partly a “public good,” and everyone should have a say, via government, in shaping the next generation
- Many private schools are beset by “wokeness,” so private schooling will be no escape from CRT
- We are far from universal school choice, so the choice “solution” really is not one
Too Little Choice
I’ll start with a concession – sort of – on number four. There is, indeed, too little choice right now for most people to select schools that share their views on CRT, or sundry other divisive issues. But the choice-as-peacemaker proposition is about explaining what needs to be done, not what exists. And, for what it’s worth, there is a lot of help on the way.
Now to objection one: Choice would not bring peace because we make everyone pay for education, so all should get a say.
We do, indeed, make all Americans pay for public education, but that does not mean that the money must only go to government schools with uniform curricula and policies. Many countries, as Pondiscio notes, let families choose schools using public funds, and if families are similar in their beliefs and desires to taxpayers broadly, something like universal vouchers would result in education akin to what taxpayers would have chosen themselves. Net coercion would be minimal. That said, we have direct mechanisms to give funders freedom: personal use and scholarship tax credits, found in numerous states, that allow funders to choose whether to pay for school choices, and often which choices to fund.
A “Public Good”
Pondiscio’s second objection goes beyond the first by asserting that every American should have a say in education regardless of taxation. Education is a “public good,” and we should collectively form the next generation, through government, because “every American” has a “clear interest…in the education of the next generation.”
The most important response to this is that government shaping minds to engineer the next generation is fundamentally at odds with a free society. It gives government the power to homogenize society, potentially killing diverse communities and ideas by deciding which will – and will not – be reproduced.
More technically, Pondiscio uses the term “public good” loosely, basically meaning “something with more than private benefits,” or maybe just “something that is good for everyone.” But a public good, as defined in economics, has specific attributes that explain why government should intervene in its production. Such a good is one that people can use without reducing its availability to others, and from which no one can be kept away – something “non-rivalrous” and “non-excludable” – and which, by its open nature, can lead to free riders who use but do not contribute to it. The classic example is national defense, from which everyone in the country benefits whether they pay or not.
Education does not meet those criteria – schools can certainly keep out free riders – hence killing the rigorous justification for government intervention. Pondiscio’s use is much looser, more that education has positive externalities – benefits beyond those accruing to students and families – such as lower imprisonment rates or higher incomes and hence tax payments, and education would be under-consumed were it based only on private benefit.
Given that there are major personal benefits to education, especially increased earnings, the private incentive would almost certainly be sufficient to produce assumed positive externalities such as lower incarceration rates. And frankly, Pondiscio’s definition could be used to justify any potential government action: I’m happy when I’m eating barbecue, and when I’m happy I am less likely to have a car accident, hurting someone else. So subsidized barbecue is a public good!
But what about goods that do not logically proceed from private interest, such as becoming a well-informed, active citizens?
There may, indeed, be limited private benefit to learning about jury duty, or how a bill becomes a law. But if most people do not care about such things, there is little reason to believe that the public will demand that their schools teach them, or that even if taught kids will learn or retain them. Which is exactly what the evidence indicates is happening. According to the National Assessment of Educational Progress, only 14 percent of 8th grade public school students were “proficient” in U.S. history in 2018 – the most recent exam – and in civics, only 23 percent were.
Ironically, Catholic school students – students those opposed to choice on “balkanization” grounds might think least likely to become good citizens because they attend not just private, but religious, schools – had much higher NAEP civics and U.S. history proficiency rates than public school students. And rigorous research comparing public and private students has repeatedly found a private school advantage in forming well-informed, tolerant, and active citizens.
Now let’s really throw the “public goods” objection for a loop: Superior private school results are quite possibly enabled by choice and autonomy. When a school gets to make its own decisions about what to teach and how to teach it, and families freely choose that school, it enables the teaching of rigorous, concrete material, and the energetic instilling of values such as tolerance of those who think differently. In contrast, public school teachers often downplay or avoid controversial material to avert conflict among diverse families assigned to their school, ripping out crucial substance.
Private “Woke,” Too?
Finally, Pondiscio argues that choice may not help with CRT because private schools may be just as “woke” as public, if not more so.
To make his point, Pondiscio points to anecdotal evidence of super-elite – and expensive – private schools embracing CRT-type ideas. But this does not indicate how widespread CRT and related ideas are, while at least one survey suggests many teachers want little to do with CRT. Meanwhile, most private schools are not preserves of the wealthy like Harvard-Westlake, but are affordable religious – and likely often conservative – schools.
But the real problem here is much deeper. The ultimate measure of an education system’s success should not be “does it keep out the things I don’t like.” Indeed, for your own good that should not be the measure.
Basic human reality is that no one is omniscient, and as right as we may be convinced we are on any given issue, there is always a chance we are wrong. And the more complex, or values-laden, an issue, the less likely we are to be unquestionably correct.
Given this, we should absolutely want as wide a sphere as possible for different ideas to be tried and compete. We should want it for our own protection, not just because we may not be the ones with political power, but because allowing lots of new things to be tried is how us finite-brained humans learn over time what works, what does not, and what may work for some people but not others. It is the key to societal evolution and progress.
Looking specifically at CRT, it is not at all certain that Pondiscio’s view is the correct one. There is, for instance, good reason to believe that people have implicit biases – we all have instinctive reactions to lots of things – and that those reactions might contribute to racially disparate outcomes. Yawning black-white wealth differences, meanwhile, justify concern about systemic racism.
Of course, not being clearly wrong does not mean these concepts are right. But that so much is unknown does mean that it is very dangerous to have government choose winners and losers.
It is terrific to see people starting to grapple with the possibility that public schooling is a social divider, and school choice a bringer of peace. But the work of explaining why choice is essential is only just beginning.