Smart Markets, Diverse Options, and Burke’s Caution

On September 3, I participated in a launch event for Mike McShane’s new book, Education and Opportunity, a publication of AEI’sValues and Capitalism” initiative. The following are my amended remarks about the book, namely our improved understanding of K12 markets, the downsides of a unitary system of schools, and the intersection of such reform and conservatism.

I want to focus on three elements of this valuable new book. The first two relate to its contributions to our improved thinking about school choice. The third relates to the tension between school choice and conservatism.

First, Education and Opportunity offers a sophisticated view of public school markets, how to understand them, use their strength, and appreciate their limitations.

The book’s thrust is neatly summarized by one of its early sentences: “A vibrant marketplace of education options is the most effective means of developing the schools necessary to meet the needs of students today and in the years to come.”

Many writers on school choice have focused on the importance of options. But note the use of “vibrant” and “developing.” This suggests a portfolio of schools that’s full of energy and dynamism. This is not a minimally diverse set of schools, a collection that exists in perpetuity. In this sentence and throughout the book, Mike describes a portfolio consisting of a wide array of options, a portfolio that continuously improves in quality and evolves to reflect the changing needs of families.

This echoes the great insight from charter schooling, that “charter” is best understood as a verb, not an adjective. As an adjective, it merely describes a school. As a verb—to charter—it implies a process: to create schools, to hold schools accountable, to grow great schools, to close failing schools…and to do so continuously.

Mike’s vision is a complex understanding of how and why choice, when embedded in the right environment, can help produce a responsive and self-improving system of schools. Importantly, he puts the onus on the market to create this environment: “Markets don’t present solutions to problems. Rather, they create the conditions under which innovative thinkers can solve problems.”

Here Mike borrows from his colleague Rick Hess, author of Education Unbound, which introduces the concept of “greenfield schooling,” that a fertile-field environment can host, incubate, and grow innovations. Get the conditions right, and you set this process in motion.

I appreciate Education and Opportunity’s humility when discussing school markets. Mike concedes the difficulty in getting these conditions right: “Markets are not magical.”

This fact is especially important at this very moment. It is the story today in the most exciting cities for K–12 reform (like New Orleans, D.C., Detroit, and Indianapolis), places where parents have choice, options exist, and social entrepreneurs are at work. The challenge is in constructing the right framework and the right system, and to harness it all and bring coherence to the whole, a subject about which Robin Lake has been writing thoughtfully.

Mike has made a case for school markets that goes well beyond “choice is a panacea,” an unfortunate phrase that simplified systemic-reform for entirely too long.

The book’s second notable feature is its uncommon critique of our predominantly unitary system of schooling. Ted Kolderie, called it the “exclusive territorial franchise,” the districts’ owning and operating all public schools within a geographic area.

A unitary system has obvious problems: it’s monopolistic, offers few options, and so on. But as Mike notes, it also, paradoxically, proves to be extremely divisive: “The monolithic nature of the education system has created an adversarial environment wherein people of differing values are forced to fight for ideological supremacy.”

This is the unfortunate tension inherent in our “common” school model, a tension concomitant with the model’s founding. A single system should be an egalitarian force. In practice, though, it leads inexorably to pitched battles over who gets control.

Politics, Markets, and America’s Schools argues that democratic control enables influential interest groups to capture a school system. Those lacking political power, including historically disenfranchised groups, end up with little say over their public schools.

This is a century-long problem. David Tyack’s The One Best System and Diane Ravitch’s The Great School Wars detail the power struggles that birthed urban districts. Newly arrived immigrant groups wanted control of their neighborhood schools so they could pass on their cultures, histories, and languages. Those who’d been in the country longer (and had political power) preferred to assimilate or “Americanize” these students—homogenization at best, bigotry at worst.

Several states were so committed to constraining educational diversity that they banned private schooling, forcing all children into government-run schools. The U.S. Supreme Court overturned such laws in Pierce v. Society of Sisters. Some contemporary scholars, including Amy Gutmann, still argue society will be riven by public support for educational diversity. My view, however, and the one suggested by Education and Opportunity, is that embracing options advances the cause of democratic pluralism.

My final point is that Edmund Burke, one of the fathers of modern conservatism, might’ve been skeptical of this book. It’s important to recognize that choice, competition, and innovation won’t be found in the DNA of traditional public education.

If you have a Burkean bent, a bias for preservation, you believe that an institution’s longevity reflects evolutionary robustness. There is a reason it has survived the test of time. This book’s faith in innovation and change might strike a Burkean as too technocratic. For all its flaws, maybe our system has enormous under-appreciated virtues. Perhaps there’s something to be said for residence-based assignments and one teacher, sans tech, in front of twenty-five students.

I’m reminded of the wonderful saying, “Never take down a fence until you know why it’s been put up.” Often there is wisdom in age and experience. So when Mike writes, “To liberalize, school districts must essentially dissolve,” is that going too far? When he references Teles’s concept of “kludgeocracy,” perhaps we reply, “There’s nothing wrong with complications that reflect accumulated wisdom.” When he writes, “New choice programs and their attending regulations should not be added onto existing systems; they should replace them,” we might respond adding and adjusting is far more prudent than wholesale change.

I believe it’s time to have a conversation about which aspects of public schooling need to be preserved and which need to be overhauled. Indeed, if you consider today’s fights over Common Core, common assessments, tenure, teacher evaluation, and more, you see they boil down to this basic question: Do we preserve or reform?

Though I remain a zealot for choice, diversity in educational options, and smart markets, I’m mindful of the many ripples attended by change.

-Andy Smarick

This first appeared on the Fordham Institute’s Flypaper blog.

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