Moving the goal posts

magic-trickIt’s an old rhetorical trick, but in skilled hands it still works like new.

Like magic.

Here’s an argument for “education reform” and charters from the Broad Foundations that few people would take major issue with (assuming it’s factually correct):

“With one-third of students dropping out and many of those who graduate from high school unable to succeed in college, our public schools are failing our nation.”

Now here’s a clever pivot by the Pacific Legal Foundation (PLF) that skirts a requirement of unmet student need. In its November 13, 2013 amicus brief filed in support of the California Charter Schools Association in a lawsuit against LA Unified School District, the table of contents reads:

“The Charter Schools Act of 1992 was adopted in response to a growing crisis in public education.”

But their Summary of Argument reads:

“All too often, traditional public schools provide a dissatisfying one-size-fits-all model resistant to improvement.”

Poof! The justification for breaking our constitutional “common” public school model just morphed from crisis “We must do it for the children” to preference “We must do it because… well, because people like choice.” It’s just more satisfying, even if it’s not right.

shopaholicQ:  “I’m accustomed to choosing ordinary things like my car, a restaurant or my smartphone. Why don’t I get to choose something as important as which public schools my children attend?”

A:  Because public education operates by different principles than a private market for goods and services. In the public domain, we prohibit the discrimination and inequality inherent in a market system because all citizens are entitled to an equal measure of benefit from our laws and public institutions. In public life, we’re responsible to and for one another under a social contract. This is why when some students are shortchanged or under-served by their public schools, we create supplementary or remedial programs to ensure they get a fair share—and a fair shot at life.

But I digress.

At least the Broad Foundation was unambiguous by defining the dropout problem as “one-third of students.” You have to marvel at all the ambiguity from PLF:

  • All too often
  • Dissatisfying
  • Resistent to improvement

There’s something for just about everyone inclined to be even a little bit critical of traditional public schools. Any school parent who’s honest about their experience will say they’ve been “dissatisfied” at one time or another with their teacher or their school, and “all too often” can mean as little as “once.” Given typical parental focus on their children’s achievement, who among us would say they’ve never felt a program, teacher or administrator was “resistant to improvement”?

This is the tap root of privatization of public education, a vital civic institution, obviously related to The Great Misdirection. It’s also known as the “consumerization” of public education. The underlying justification for “education reform” and charter schools has become less about leveling the playing field for under-served and struggling students and more about giving parents free market, consumer choice for the sake of… choice itself.

But “choice for choice’s sake” can—and is—being deployed by parents to create separate, unequal quasi-private “public schools of choice” that segregate students by ethnicity, socio-economic status, educational achievement or other “consumer” preferences. Choice unrestrained by demonstrable educational need breaks the back of our equity-based constitutional system of common schools.

Here’s basically how it works: I grab your attention by railing against the moral injustice of under-achieving public schools and high school dropout rates, then I get you nodding your head “Yes” as I prescribe a “choice and charter” remedy for these urgent social ills, then with a pandering appeal to your self-interest, it’s a trivial challenge to convince you that every parent and child is entitled to public education on their own terms.

Voila! Magically, everyone is entitled to public “school choice” even if they’re not struggling in school or at risk of dropping out. Even if they’re on the ‘winning’ side of the achievement gap. Isn’t it just fair that we all have equal right to choose?

Did you see what I did there? I moved the goal posts on the “reform” argument, and you ate it up. Yum.

Almost nothing sells like vanity and self-interest, especially when it’s “for the children,” swaddled in moral indignation, victimhood and entitlement.

Tastes great. Less integrated.

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