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School Choice and Viewpoint Diversity: Competing Visions. A Dialogue Between Greg Forster and Robert Pondiscio (Part 1)
This blog is part of our new “Heterodox Dialogues” series, which models constructive disagreement among authors who hold opposing or conflicting views on topics. Through an exchange of essays, authors refine their perspectives, find constructive compromises, and offer new solutions.
School Choice Enhances Viewpoint Diversity
Debates — which often sound more like shouting matches — about how racial issues get taught in K-12 schools are highlighting a systemic problem in our education system. Many Americans, on both political sides, don’t trust the public K-12 school system to handle these difficult issues well. Yet the process of both sides politically pressuring schools to adopt what they think is “the right way,” often through clumsy and ham-handed legislation or by pushing highly ideological curricular tools, actually makes it much harder for schools to handle tough issues with nuance and sensitivity, or to permit the viewpoint diversity in the classroom that is so essential to real education.
Our intense desire to make sure our schools “get it right” is becoming the primary obstacle to their doing so. If we want viewpoint diversity in the classroom, we have to find a way to get political pressures driven by the culture war out of the classroom. Teachers can create a classroom welcoming of viewpoint diversity only if there is mutual respect and trust; culture-war politics is the quickest way to destroy that kind of educational environment.
This matters for more than just K-12. Viewpoint diversity in the academy depends on viewpoint diversity in the primary and secondary schools that send their students to colleges and universities. If students arrive on campus having failed to acquire, during their formative years, the experiences and capacities they need to handle viewpoint diversity in the classroom, colleges that aspire to permit viewpoint diversity will have to undertake the difficult and costly labor of remedial measures. Better to get it right the first time.
What if the real problem is a systemic flaw in our K-12 system — namely, that we expect all schools to teach all children the same thing in the same way? School choice policies cultivate an ecosystem in which a wide variety of schools offer different curricular and pedagogical approaches, by allowing parents to choose among public and private schools instead of assigning them to a school by residence. Public funding follows the student to the school of the parents’ choice. This makes it possible for the classroom to be something other than a political battlefield. When schools know that the approach they take is backed by parents, and that parents can always switch if they’re unhappy, they have the freedom to expose students to challenging material and invite them into difficult conversations. The classroom can genuinely invite exploration and exchanges of views when parents are satisfied that their children are in safe hands. Students also attend schools that are more diverse, because they’re not trapped in their own homogeneous neighborhoods. The empirical evidence on school choice so far in the U.S. finds that it strengthens respect for the rights of others, increases healthy civic engagement, and reduces segregation.
School Choice vs. the One Best Way
From top to bottom, our school system is built on the idea that every child in a given location ought to attend the same school and be educated according to a uniform, standardized curriculum and pedagogy. But if one size must fit all, it seems impossible to avoid endless, educationally destructive culture wars about which way is the “One Best Way.” Certainly the long track record of political firestorms about the content of education over the past century does not justify much hope for a standardized, uniform education that isn’t a subject of constant culture war.
Defenders of standardization argue that a single, uniform curriculum for all students can include exposure to diverse viewpoints. However, that is exactly what is supposed to be happening now. Existing state educational standards require schools to make sure students are exposed to multiple viewpoints, can think critically and evaluate different claims, etc. For example, my state of Wisconsin warns that it’s harmful when students “enter school and find themselves in a place that does not recognize or value the knowledge or experience they bring from their homes or communities,” but “this diversity is our greatest education asset,” so “districts and schools can alleviate this dissonance by valuing and taking advantage of the unique experiences that each student brings to the classroom.” That hasn’t prevented Wisconsin schools from becoming subject to political conflict over critical race theory.
Wisconsin citizens on both sides are mobilizing politically to fight over how our One Best Way curriculum presents diverse viewpoints to students, not because the curriculum is not striving to present diverse viewpoints, but because it is. This is why the bottomless culture war ensues wherever there is a One Best Way.
Educators, wanting to avoid getting entangled in political conflicts over their classrooms, are highly incentivized to reduce this politically radioactive element of the curriculum to a minimum. K-12 public school teachers in Wisconsin, and in any of the growing number of states where these conflicts are emerging, risk becoming a legal test case or a social media scapegoat if they prioritize open and free exchanges of opinion in the classroom. The only safe thing to do if you’re a teacher in this environment is to cover the touchy subjects as quickly and as superficially as possible, with minimal opportunity for potentially dangerous critical thinking or open discussion, and move on.
In a diverse society, there can be no One Best Way for all people; that is what the words “a diverse society” mean. To impose a One Best Way in education is ipso facto to suppress social diversity. As the Supreme Court has recognized since the landmark cases of Meyer v. Nebraska and Wisconsin v. Yoder, the demand that all children must receive the same education entails the forcible extinction of cultural minority groups. The enormous role played by anti-Catholic bigotry in the original establishment of the current school system is only one of many instances illustrating this principle.
School choice would get political culture wars out of the classroom. When people are convinced that all children — and especially their own children — are being indoctrinated into the other side’s propaganda, no force on earth will stop them from fighting tooth and nail to seize political control of education in order to prevent this indoctrination. But if different schools could take different approaches, with parents able to decide which schools their children attend and thus the approach under which they are educated, schools would be free to educate independently of culture-war pressures.
The Empirical Research on School Choice
The track record of school choice in the real world bears out the expectation that it does a better job of producing good citizens for a diverse society. There are now 72 government programs in 31 states, Washington, D.C., and Puerto Rico that allow parents to send their children to any school, public or private, using some of the public funds allocated for their children’s education. These programs serve more than 600,000 students. The body of social science studying their effects is one of the most methodologically rigorous in any area of public policy.
While most of the research on these programs focuses on academic outcomes, a substantial body of research examines outcomes for civic values and practices. The most common method is to ask students to identify the group they most dislike — student responses include Nazis, terrorist groups, people who vote for a given political party, people who support or oppose abortion or gay marriage, and religious minorities like Muslims or evangelicals — and then ask a battery of questions about whether the selected group should be allowed to do things like vote, hold a rally, or have a book sympathetic to their views in a public library. Another common method is to measure rates at which students engage in positive civic activities, like voting and volunteering, after graduation.
A series of Harvard University studies found that a lottery-based program in Washington, D.C., either improved these civic outcomes — students who received seats in the program scored better than those who did not — or had no visible effect. Researchers at Stanford and the University of Sydney found positive results from similar random-assignment research on a program in Toledo. Researchers at Furman University found positive results (though using different methods) in Milwaukee’s long-standing program, while other researchers found a combination of positive results or no visible effect in Milwaukee.
I have been a professional researcher in this field for almost 20 years and have tracked the research carefully. None of the research reviews that are regularly published on this body of research — including two that I have published, as well as several more recent ones — have identified a single empirical study anywhere in the U.S. that found civic values and practices were made worse by these programs.
Nor have there been any documented instances of people starting “hate schools” and “bigotry factories,” as critics of these programs used to predict. After more than 30 years, we should ask whether these predictions have been falsified by the facts.
Defenders of educational standardization often argue that assigning students to schools on the basis of where they live, rather than allowing parents to choose, is necessary to ensure that students attend schools with those who are different from them. Ironically, in practice, the opposite occurs. The One Best Way system requires all students to attend schools in their own neighborhoods, which tend to be very homogenous — ethnically, economically, politically, religiously, etc. — and are becoming more so, not less so, over time. School choice breaks down the barriers of physical separation created by this “Big Sort.”
This is not speculation; it has been validated by extensive experience. Segregation rates are another common focus of empirical research on these programs. A series of studies at the University of Arkansas found that a program in Louisiana reduced classroom segregation, whereas the aforementioned program in Milwaukee produced no visible effect on it. A University of Texas study found that a program in Cleveland reduced segregation. I conducted empirical studies in Milwaukee and Cleveland that found the programs reduced school segregation. Again, after almost 20 years neither I nor my colleagues nor any of the published research reviews have uncovered an empirical study finding that these programs make segregation worse. (Note that these programs are distinct from charter schools, which do have more mixed empirical results, most likely because they don’t have the same power to break down the relationship between schooling and residence.)
Overcoming Our Fear of Diversity
I am aware of how horrified many people are when they first encounter the idea of school choice. Often, the imagination runs wild, picturing the terrible things “those people” will do in their schools if they are given the opportunity. This horror is another form of the instinctive reflex to seize political control of education in order to prevent the other side from having access to children.
The demand for a standardized education that treats students like interchangeable widgets on a factory assembly line is one of the strongest taboos in our society. Its root is a fear that our social diversity is not our strength but a weakness that must be suppressed. In the title of his classic book, Charles Glenn of Boston University dubbed it “The Myth of the Common School.” Glenn defines the myth as “the idea that only a school with no distinctive coloration of its own can serve to unify a diverse society.” In the U.S., the goal of unifying a diverse society is often interpreted through the lenses of race and religion. However, in his body of work Glenn has shown how the same myth is often at work in other societies where the pressures of diversity run along very different lines (in Spain, for example).
If we can step back and ask why school choice might actually decrease segregation while increasing civic solidarity, the results are not hard to explain. As we have already observed, choice breaks the link between neighborhoods (which tend to be very homogenous) and schooling. Meanwhile, schools that are allowed to know and teach what they believe about the world have a firm and effective basis for teaching children that they must respect the rights of others and contribute positively to a diverse society, whereas a school that has (in Glenn’s fine phrase) “no distinctive coloration of its own” has no reliable basis on which to form the character of students with moral virtues like respect and generosity. It can only wag its finger at students, scolding them that they ought to behave — which is true, but not helpful.
If we want classrooms that welcome viewpoint diversity and handle difficult subjects with nuance and sensitivity, we won’t get them from a system built on the assumption that there is One Best Way and that the only hope for social peace is to make sure all students are educated that way. To aspire to a diverse society is to recognize that different people and groups not only want different things for their children but ought to be allowed to pursue different things for their children. Logic and empirical evidence unite to suggest that school choice is not only good for children and families, it’s good for freedom, equality, and diversity.
Pro School Choice But Forster’s Vision Reduces Viewpoint Diversity
It’s ironic and uncomfortable to be “debating” Greg Forster, because I share without reservation his enthusiasm for school choice. In my book How the Other Half Learns, I concluded there is no moral reason for government at any level to prevent children of any race, ethnic group, or income level from reaping the full rewards of their talents and ambitions, or to interfere with parents’ best efforts to do what they deem best for their children. That means working to give disadvantaged low-income families the same range of quality school options well-off families take for granted. In a word: choice.
That said, one can be right for the wrong reasons. While there are many good arguments to support school choice, it’s important to remain clear-eyed about what it can and cannot accomplish. School choice is an important tool, but so is a hammer: excellent for driving a nail, but not much use for changing a tire. Your expectations must align with the tool’s design.
Offering school choice as a universal solution to all that ails American education has become a familiar and reflexive argument among libertarians for whom there is no such thing as a good “government school” and no problem that choice can’t fix. But there’s cognitive dissonance in Forster’s argument: The vision he describes would not promote viewpoint diversity; it would marginalize it. There would be room for divergent views, but in separate schools and classrooms. The ideal of, in his words, “schools that are allowed to know and teach what they believe about the world” and from which “parents can always switch if they’re unhappy” treats viewpoint diversity as unresolvable culture war conflict and something to be avoided. Functionally, he proposes a system that would encourage families and students with opposing views mostly to avoid one another.
There is a way to encourage both school choice and viewpoint diversity, modeled on the educational pluralism common to many other countries. But it might not satisfy Forster and others who see school choice as a mere conflict-avoidance mechanism or who advocate for a pure free-market system of schools.
In her book No One Way to School: Pluralism and American Public Education, Ashley Berner of Johns Hopkins University makes a compelling case that American education made “two wrong turns that should be reversed.” The first is the uniform structure of our public school system, wherein the government both funds and runs our schools. The second is our abandonment of a traditional academic curriculum. This would seem to echo Forster’s critique, but there are crucial differences that he ignores, perhaps because they undermine his thesis that American public education “is built on the idea that every child … ought to attend the same school and be educated according to a uniform, standardized curriculum and pedagogy.”
For readers who assume the American model — government-funded, government-run schools — is the way it’s done everywhere, Berner’s book is eye-opening. Other countries tend to fund a wide variety of schools: Protestant, Catholic, Islamic, secular, or Montessori schools, for example, alongside what Americans would think of as “traditional public schools.” In the Netherlands, Berner points out, there are 36 different kinds of schools on equal footing and supported by public funds. About one-third of young people—a plurality—still attend the equivalent of the traditional neighborhood school.
“But unlike a more libertarian school-choice approach in which the State would relinquish its claim over quality control, pluralist systems hold all schools accountable for academic outcomes through a common curriculum and assessments,” Berner explains. “Sometimes they even require students to learn about diverse viewpoints as part of the curriculum. England, for instance, funds Hindu and Islamic schools but requires all schools to teach comparative religion and ethics every year. Indeed, that is normal protocol across the OECD countries.
“Educational pluralism is not merely ‘school choice,’” Berner observes. “It’s a norm of school choice plus a norm of academic and civic responsibility.” In other words, Forster would probably not like “pluralism” as understood and practiced in most other countries. It’s not a laissez-faire, free-market approach where all manner of schools receive public support and parents voting with their feet is the first and last word in accountability. He clearly rejects any kind of common curriculum across schools of choice, and the idea of a national curriculum is a nonstarter in the U.S. anyway due to our Constitution, which puts schools under the control of states, not the federal government. But as a purely academic matter, I will wager that Forster would reject the bargain many other countries have made: a plural system of schools, all eligible for government funding, but subject to government oversight and committed to a common curriculum.
Forster is on firmer ground describing the civic outcomes associated with school choice. However, his argument carries an inherent suspicion of democratic processes and civic engagement. Defenders of traditional public schooling are incorrect to assume that it enhances civic-mindedness and fellow feeling. The available evidence suggests private schools, particularly Catholic schools, graduate more civically engaged students. But why fight about how racial issues get taught in K-12 schools when you can simply steer clear of such divisive arguments? Let your children learn critical race theory in your school of choice — American exceptionalism in mine, Forster’s argument implies. Arguing over it is a waste of time. This suggests there is no public interest in the education afforded all children, provided we all have the ability to teach it our way at public expense. Let a thousand flowers bloom.
This betrays a view that the only stakeholder in a child’s education is the child and their family. It elides almost entirely the fact that the cost of educating the nation’s children is socialized. You pay school taxes, directly or indirectly, whether you have one child enrolled, 10, or none at all. This is a feature, not a flaw, of our system. It reflects the belief that a free country depends on a well-educated citizenry capable of self-government. We are literally invested in the outcome of all children, not just our own.
That shared stake in the education offered to all students is also an argument for at least some shared curriculum across even schools of choice, again something Forster demonstrates no patience for. Instead, he indulges perhaps the greatest misapprehension about American education: the assumption that children move in lockstep through a state- or district-mandated curriculum. Forster creates a strawman of it, contrasting choice with “One Best Way” schooling, even capitalizing it to ensure the derision is lost upon no one.
While the vast majority of American children attend zoned public schools, the assumption that this means a standardized curriculum is a myth. A recent study from the RAND Corporation found that nearly every U.S. teacher—99% of elementary teachers; 96% of secondary school teachers—draws upon “materials I developed and/or selected myself” in teaching English language arts, with similarly high numbers for math. Nearly 3 out of 4 social studies teachers in a separate RAND report agreed with the statement, “Textbooks are becoming less and less important in my classroom.” The heavy hand of “One Best Way” technocrats has less influence over what gets taught in government-run schools than Google and Pinterest: Materials that teachers “found, modified, or created from scratch” make up the majority of what gets taught. Only 1 in 4 secondary school social studies teachers surveyed by RAND cite resources “provided by my school or district” as composing the majority of what they use in class on a given day. This suggests enormous variability in the classroom content kids experience not just from state to state but within school districts and even across the hall from one another in the same school.
In sum, Forster is simply mistaken when he writes “we expect all schools to teach all children the same thing in the same way.” We expect no such thing and have not for some time, if ever. The immense variability of student experience is baked into “best practice” with teachers expected to “differentiate instruction” for disparate skill levels and to use their judgment to select materials to “engage” reluctant learners, and otherwise customize instruction. A national curriculum is a standard feature of countries with educational pluralism. If uniformity is the thing to be avoided at all costs, he would surely prefer the system the U.S. has at present, in which individual teachers exercise an unusual degree of control over classroom content, for good or ill.
Not incidentally, the strongest argument for common curriculum has nothing whatsoever to do with political indoctrination or a desire to tamp down viewpoint diversity. For more than 40 years, E.D. Hirsch Jr. has demonstrated convincingly that language proficiency in a diverse society rests on a shared body of knowledge, cultural allusions, and idioms. Perhaps for this reason, the common curriculum Forster disdains is a standard feature of pluralist systems.
School choice holds great promise as a positive virtue that allows families to choose from among intellectually rich, culturally affirming school models. It’s an impoverished view of choice to suggest its primary virtue is curtailing the risk that children might be exposed to unpleasant ideas about race and other forms of controversial content. Making a virtue of this negative benefit is the opposite of encouraging viewpoint diversity. It interprets viewpoint diversity as an intractable conflict and suggests the wise course of action is to marginalize it or avoid it altogether. This is simply bad education practice. A rock-bottom goal of education, public or private, is to prepare children for citizenship and the rigors of self-government. The ability to listen to, engage in, and debate divergent views—not merely avoid exposure to them—is no less of a critical student outcome than literacy and numeracy. Viewpoint diversity within schools, not merely between them, is indispensable.
Finally, Forster overstates the ease with which parents “can always switch if they’re unhappy.” As families who have pulled their children from a school can attest, switching schools is not a decision made casually. It can be disruptive to the routines of parents and other children. There have also been countless examples of the most affluent and privileged families driven to paroxysms of rage over how their children’s “woke” private schools handle the thorny questions of race and culture that Foster assumes choice alone will solve. Yet, as Bari Weiss and others have documented, those families mostly stay put; they do not switch. If families who command every conceivable resource and educational option sit and seethe rather than pack up and go, it’s fanciful to assume that families with far fewer resources and options will do so, particularly outside of large cities and well-populated suburbs, where the population base is unlikely ever to support a significant number of quality alternatives.
None of this is to suggest that school choice is a bad idea. It’s an essential idea, and there should be more of it — much more. But the argument isn’t between school choice and “defenders of education standardization,” since the latter group barely exists in theory, and in practice not at all. Choice advocates — again, I am one — must recognize that many, perhaps most, parents will choose a zoned neighborhood school even when alternatives are available. It’s shortsighted to pretend this isn’t so, that those parents are beneath our concern because they make a choice we don’t like, or that we have no stake in their children’s education and life outcomes. We most certainly do.
Similarly, the case for educational pluralism as Berner describes it honors both the distinctive needs of individual families and the imperative to prepare young people for reasoned and effective participation in civil society. “Educational pluralism will satisfy neither libertarians nor statists,” she concludes. “But it does offer a viable path forward that can avoid zero-sum games, narrow academic achievement gaps, and contribute to the common good.”
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