Parental choice: Why I favor less government

Guest blogger Jay P. Greene is the 21st Century Professor of Education Reform at the University of Arkansas and a fellow at the George W. Bush Institute at Southern Methodist University.

Being against greater national control over education policy is not the same as being for local school districts. I appreciate Peter Meyer giving me the opportunity in this space to explain what I am for when it comes to school governance.

Fundamentally, I am for parental control over the education of their children, so I guess that I am for as little governance over education as we can manage. In my ideal world, which I’ve tried to explain and justify at greater length in this book chapter, parents would be given as much money as is minimally necessary to fulfill their obligation to educate their children and would choose the location, manner, and content of that education. Since education is just a subset of all of the activities in which parents engage to raise their children to be productive adults, we should defer to parents as much in how they educate their children as how they raise those children more generally. As long as parents do not neglect or abuse their children, the government should have as little role in education as is possible.

But we don’t live in my ideal world and I have no expectation that we will. All that I can hope for is that we will inch closer to my ideal rather than further away from it. With that in mind, I favor governance arrangements that facilitate greater parental choice and control over education over those that would reduce parental choice and control.

I favor governance arrangements that facilitate greater parental choice and control over education over those that would reduce parental choice and control.

So, I have no particular love for local school districts. They just more closely approximate parental choice and control than does granting more power over education to the state or national governments. It would be even better in my view to abolish school districts and have every school be like a charter school—a publicly regulated school of choice that would choose its own method and content of education and would have to attract willing families to generate the revenue to pay for it. But I understand the idea of abolishing school districts and having every school operate as a charter school is only slightly less unrealistic than a virtually unregulated world of parental choice and control.

As unrealistic as making every school a charter school may be, we have been inching in that direction. A little more than two decades ago we had no charter schools. Today charter schools constitute nearly 5 percent of all public schools and educate about 3 percent of all students. And the expansion of parental choice and control has been even greater when one considers the fully array of choices that have been introduced over the last two decades, including vouchers, tax credit funded scholarships, virtual schools, inter-district choice, magnet schools, etc…  My ideal world may be an unattainable fantasy, but my vision of gradual progress toward that ideal has been a fairly accurate description of the trends over the last few decades.

But there are some people, primarily edupundits located within the D.C. beltway, who have very different fantasies about ideal governance arrangements. Rather than shifting arrangements directly toward greater parental choice and control, they dream about measures granting greater control to state and national authorities. They rightly point out the defects of local school districts, but they wrongly see the solution in greater centralization of power rather than in the expansion of parental choice and control.

Their justifications for increasing the power of state and national authorities over education are more like empty political slogans than actual intellectual arguments based on principle. For example, we’ll hear some say that a decentralized system of education cannot meet our needs in the twenty-first century: “The system of schooling we have today is the legacy of the 19th century—and hopelessly outmoded in the 21st.”  Of course, representative democracy is also a legacy of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, but that doesn’t mean we need to dispense with it to meet the challenges of our brave new twenty-first century world. Saying that the twenty-first century demands certain skills or governance arrangements is just sloganeering and manipulating people to submit to a proposal, not a real argument.

Some attempt to justify greater centralization in education by saying that our current system is too uncoordinated, contradictory, duplicative, and confusing. We need the greater coherence, planning, and order that more centralized control can offer. Do you notice how the central authorities in these proposals are always imagined to be highly competent and benevolent? They never entertain the very real possibility that the central authority might be coherent, well-planned, and orderly in pursuing something awful. Those attracted to central planning in education may want to consider how well economic central planning has turned out.

Those attracted to central planning in education may want to consider how well economic central planning has turned out.

Some attempt to justify granting more power to state and national authorities by looking overseas and claiming that the highest achieving countries have more centralized governance arrangements. Let’s ignore for a moment that these are not accurate descriptions of how many high-achieving countries have structured their governance—Canada and Australia, for example, are high achieving and have decentralized governance arrangements. The more fundamental problem is that the “best practices” movement of imitating some of the practices of others who are successful fails to consider what actually caused others to be successful. Just imitating some of what they do is like the Cargo Cults found in Pacific Islands following WW II, where locals believed that if they built imitations of planes, runways, and control towers, the cargo and plentiful goods that had arrived during the war would return. They didn’t understand that imitating the trappings of an airport doesn’t cause cargo to arrive any more than imitating the trappings of other countries’ governance arrangements will cause high achievement.

Lastly, some advocates of centralization argue that you actually need to centralize certain things in order to facilitate better decentralized control over other things. They describe this approach as “tight-loose,” where the central authority assumes greater control over determining and regulating the goals of education and local authorities are then given greater flexibility over the means for meeting those goals. Of course, ends and means are not so easily separated. Ends often dictate or at least constrain the selection of means. In addition, in what fantasy world would the central authority carefully limit its role to setting and regulating ends once it is given authority over an issue? At least I recognize that my fantasy of parental choice and control is unrealistic. 

Dreaming about a world in which parents almost entirely control the education of their children at least provides me with a principle by which I can judge policy proposals. I favor policies that move us closer to my ideal and oppose those that move us farther away. But the advocates of greater centralization in education do not appear to be guided by any particular principle, or at least none that they are willing to articulate. Instead, they seem to mostly spew empty political slogans to manipulate or bully us into ceding more power to central authorizes. I may not love local school districts, but I would prefer them over these central planning fantasies.

While editor Peter Meyer is taking a brief sabbatical from his biweekly blog, Board's Eye View is hosting a series of guest blog posts from a range of experts and stakeholders answering The BIG Question: What's the most important governance issue? Meyer encourages readers to interact with our TBQ contributors or contact him directly at pmeyer@edexcellence.net if they would like to submit their own TBQ essay.

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