No, school choice isn’t a conservative plot

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Karl Marx wasn't a school choice guy, as far as we know. But the guy who wrote the definitive Marxist critique of American public schools is. He admits his initial resistance to choice was purely knee-jerk.
Karl Marx wasn’t a school choice guy, as far as we know. But the guy who wrote the definitive Marxist critique of American public schools is. He admits his initial resistance to school choice was purely knee-jerk. (Image from Wikimedia Commons.)

This is the latest post in our series on the center-left roots of school choice.

If they wanted to, it’d be easy for progressives who oppose school choice to find a long list of other progressives who embrace it. Given the stuff that’s flying in an effort to tar Betsy DeVos, I wish more wanted to. But hope springs eternal, so today we’re hoping fair-minded progressives might pause long enough to hear from Herbert Gintis, an economist who co-wrote “Schooling in Capitalist America,” a classic in progressive education circles.

Essentially, Gintis wrote in 2004, in the foreword to another left-leaning book, “The Emancipatory Promise of Charter Schools: Toward a Progressive Politics of School Choice,” anti-school-choice progressives (who by and large are white, middle-class progressives) should stop being so knee-jerk about their education politics.

Like, at one time, Gintis admits in the foreword, he was:

Voucher Left logo snipped

When I wrote ‘The Political Economy of School Choice’ for Teachers College Record some ten years ago, my progressive friends thought I had lost my sense of reason. Everyone knew that school choice was a conservative plot to finance the private education of the well-to-do, to bleed the public schools of needed revenue, and to add one more roadblock against the struggle for social equality. Indeed, when I started writing about education in the 1970s, I shared this view. Not that I had ever really thought about the matter. I just knew if Milton Friedman (the conservative  University of Chicago economist) was for it, and the teachers union were against it, I must be against it, too.

Well, we were all very wrong.

Gintis isn’t as well known in education circles as he used to be; his broad academic pursuits have taken him in other directions. But young Gintis was radical left – a member of Students for a Democratic Society, a co-founder of the Union of Radical Political Economists. “Schooling in Capitalist America,” published in 1976, was described at the time as “a genuinely creative attempt to develop a Marxist point of view about the interaction between schooling and the labor market.” Gintis theorized that American schools evolved to turn students into productive workers, not to promote equal opportunity and social mobility. In a nutshell, a factory economy needed factory schools.

Gintis’s book is still in circulation. In some corners, it still gets positive reviews. Gintis, for the most part, still stands by it. (“What we were wrong about,” he told me by phone, “is we thought there was an alternative called socialism. But there isn’t.”)

I don’t know enough about the subject to have a meaningful opinion. But I find Gintis’s take on the politics of school choice refreshing.

It’s not a stretch to conclude much of the progressive opposition to vouchers, charter schools, etc. isn’t driven by the best evidence or arguments. Tribalism happens to the best of us. What’s nice about Gintis is, he admits it and, in doing so, offers a cautionary tale to the left.

His foreword is worth reading in full. He highlights parental empowerment as a good reason for expanding choice – like most in choice world do – but in his view, it’s secondary to the upside for teachers. He touches on the need for “navigators” to help families make the best choices for their children – an issue that will continue to emerge as choice expands. And he offers a definition for public education that readers of this blog (and others) will find familiar: “ … accepting school choice does not imply a lesser role for the public sector, but only a different role. By regulating and accrediting choice schools … the government makes the rule of the game, but is not itself a player.”

For what it’s worth, Gintis is reluctant to define himself politically. “I’m an economist. I care about policy. I don’t care about right or left,” he said. “I gave up on being a mindless progressive many years ago,” he added, while also admitting, “I have never voted for a Republican in my life.” He’s also not sold on DeVos, in part because he thinks she has a more libertarian bent on choice, perpetuated by press accounts, than is supported by her actual positions.

That’s fine. It’s good Gintis doesn’t fit into anybody’s box. One day, school choice won’t be political, or partisan, or controversial – and we won’t have to see who’s supporting it or not to determine whether it’s good or not. It’ll just be.

In the meantime, thoughtful progressives should be part of the debate. It could benefit from their concerns about equity and fairness and the kids who struggle. But it won’t happen as long as they remain on the outside looking in, walled off by tired myths they’ve perpetuated into an alternate reality.

I realize my persuasive powers are limited. I work for the nonprofit that administers the biggest private school choice program in America, and Betsy DeVos supports what we do. So don’t take it from me.

Take it from a guy who critiqued America’s public schools – from the left:

The fact that the well-off parents (including teachers) prefer to send their children to private schools, involving a very high material sacrifice, is some indication of the value of being able to choose. Let’s extend this privilege to the rest of our citizens.

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