The Three Tribes of the School Choice Movement

As my Fordham colleague David Griffith wrote late last year in a post accompanying the release of The Best (and Worst) Cities for School Choice, resistance to the spread of parental choice in education is futile. The genie is out of the bottle, and there’s no going back. That’s not to say that political resistance from some quarters will simply die down, or that we’ll proceed without setbacks. Far from it. But as choice in general and charter schooling in particular continue to grow, they build formidable constituencies. Nobody is marching across the Brooklyn Bridge to defend Common Core or standardized testing. But parents whose children benefit from choice are not going to surrender it without a fight.

The most important questions about school choice are no longer “whether,” but “how” and “where” and “which kinds” and “how many.” And the most interesting debates are no longer waged between choice advocates and opponents, but within the school choice movement itself. Just like the raging family feuds within each of our political parties, the divisions are real. And they run deep. That’s because the movement’s “big tent” now has factions in its various folds and corners that agree on parental choice but little else. On the occasion of National School Choice Week, let me attempt to name and depict the three tribes of the school choice movement.

1. Choice Purists. These folks—mainly freedom-loving libertarians—strongly support two of the three principles that have long defined charter schooling: parental choice and school autonomy. They are all for “parent power.” But they reject results-based accountability because if conflicts with the will of parents and the right of schools to serve their customers as they think best. (It may also warp schools’ approaches to curriculum, coerced as they may be to teach to standardized tests.) Not surprisingly, they prefer the less regulated forms of school choice—Education Savings Accounts and tax credit scholarship programs especially—but are lukewarm on charters. While this clique is best represented in free-market think tanks (and on Jay Greene’s blog), it is increasingly influential in our politics, thanks to gains by the Tea Party.

2. Choice Nannies. This second group supports parental choice, and accountability for results, but is only half-heartedly committed to school autonomy. Some of these folks are simply bureaucrats—one-time district officials who now find themselves working in charter school authorizing shops or state policy offices. At the first sign of trouble, their inclinations turn to micromanagement (in the guise of “greater oversight”); when screening charter applicants, they look for the safe and trusted. But a subset of Nannies comes from within the choice movement itself: advocates who espouse “parent power” but also have strong opinions about practices that should or shouldn’t be allowed in schools of choice. (Tough-love approaches to school discipline, especially.)

3. Choice Realists. This final group buys into all three principles that have long defined charter schooling: parental choice, school-level autonomy, and results-based accountability. (Many are also eager to apply these principles to vouchers and other publicly funded private school choice programs.) They understand that there are tradeoffs at play. Closing fully enrolled charter schools due to low performance is a violation of parental preferences. But because education is a public good and not just a private one, they contend that such stern actions are not only justifiable, but necessary. They don’t just want happy customers, they want better outcomes for society—especially for its most vulnerable children. At the same time, they worry when regulators cloak their impulse to micromanage in the language of “accountability,” since they’re also concerned that schools maintain true operational freedom and the ability to innovate. They defend the right of schools to engage in practices with which they might disagree, so long as they are getting good results and attracting ample families.

It should be obvious by now that I belong to the tribe of Choice Realists. (I’m also a Reform Realist on federal policy. I love me some realism!) Not surprisingly, I find the arguments of both the other choice factions unconvincing and even dysfunctional. Here’s why.

Start with the Purists. I’m skeptical of all utopian visions, including theirs—one imagining that a full-fledged system of choice (perhaps through universal Education Savings Accounts) will yield greater innovation, productivity, and customer satisfaction—and produce better-educated young people to boot. But I’m also worried, in the here and now, about low-quality private and charter schools that prey on low-income families like payday lenders do. I’m happy to let schools stay open so long as they demonstrate solid outcomes for kids and basic financial responsibility with taxpayer dollars. But for the Purists, that’s a Brooklyn Bridge too far. It doesn’t help their case that some of the most unscrupulous providers in today’s marketplace hide behind the “parent power” language (and organizations) to keep their lights on and profits intact.

As for the Nannies: These folks underestimate the importance of cutting the Gordian Knot that inspired charter schooling in the first place. They seem to believe that the only reason district schools struggle is because of onerous union contracts, or a political atmosphere in which parents have too little power. Solve for those problems, they assume, and the rest takes care of itself. They don’t seem to understand that the web of conflicting mandates that advocates have placed on the schools over the years—usually under the “equity” banner—are what make it next to impossible for schools to truly run themselves, much less innovate: “Do this on special education. Don’t do that with English language learners. Here’s what’s allowed on discipline. Here’s what’s not. Don’t let any of your impacts be disparate. Here’s what you can spend your dollars on. Here’s where you can’t.”

Great schools of choice aren’t government schools with a smidgen of autonomy and some freedom for parents to opt in. They’re truly independent nonprofit organizations that are entrusted to use their judgment about how best to deal with difficult questions of practice.


Is there anything to be done about these schisms in the school choice movement? Probably not. We’re better off with a big tent than a pup-tent, and that invariably means pulling in people with different ideologies and interests. As with any dysfunctional family, we have to live with one another, whether we want to or not. But if we can understand each other better, perhaps we can more effectively work together on common cause

– Mike Petrilli

This first appeared on Flypaper.

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