Wednesday Reading List: "Choice" is the Word of the Day!

The Senate held confirmation hearings for president-elect Trump's education secretary designee, Betsy DeVos. The affair was predictably partisan, as Kate Zernicke and Yamiche Alcindor of The New York Times noted:

With time limited, Democrats confronted Ms. DeVos with rapid-fire questions, demanding that she explain her family’s contributions to groups that support so-called conversion therapy for gay people; her donations to Republicans and their causes, which she agreed totaled about $200 million over the years; her past statements that government “sucks” and that public schools are a “dead end”; and the poor performance of charter schools in Detroit, where she resisted legislation that would have blocked chronically failing charter schools from expanding. Under questioning, Ms. DeVos said it would be “premature” to say whether she would continue the Obama administration’s policy requiring uniform reporting standards for sexual assaults on college campuses. She told Mr. Murphy, whose constituents include families whose children were killed in the 2012 massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School, that it should be “left to locales” to decide whether guns are allowed in schools, and that she supported Mr. Trump’s call to ban gun-free zones around schools. She also denied that she had personally supported conversion therapy.

Outside of the partisan jabs, DeVos struggled to answer basic questions about core elements of the federal role in education policymaking. As Emily DeRuy of The Atlantic summarizes, DeVos didn't express many concrete views, except for overwhelming faith in the idea that choice will make everything better in education. Choice might be a strategy, or even a bedrock value, but it is not a panacea that will create great public schools. Choice without quality and accountability is a scam.

Speaking of which, Arianna Prothero of Education Week looked at polling and finds a huge disparity between support for charter schools, which garner majority support from both major political parties, and vouchers, which do not receive majority support from either party. The numbers are surprising:

Charter schools are more popular among Republicans with 74 percent supporting the publicly funded schools that are run independently from the traditional district system, compared to 58 percent of Democrats ... Meanwhile, overall support for school vouchers for low-income students, which allow eligible students to use public money to attend a private school, has dropped from 55 percent to 43 percent over the last four years among people of both political parties, according to the poll ... school vouchers for low-income students are more popular among Democrats than Republicans—49 percent compared to 37 percent in 2016—which puts most voters at odds with the policy initiatives of their party leaders. Vouchers and other similar programs are generally pushed through state legislatures by Republican lawmakers against opposition from their Democratic counterparts.

There are some serious challenges to conventional wisdom in these numbers, so it's worth thinking deeply about them before jumping to conclusions. It strikes me as bizarre, though, that the incoming administration would stake its education agenda on an idea that isn't even popular within its own party.

Finally, journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones was on Fresh Air with Terry Gross, explaining how school segregation is upheld by the aggregation of individual choices:

One of the things I've done in my work is kind of show the hypocrisy of progressive people who say they believe in inequality, but when it comes to their individual choices about where they're going to live and where they're going to send their children, they make very different decisions, and I just didn't want to do that. So for me it was a matter of needing to live my values, and not being someone who contributed to the inequality that I write about.

You should listen to the whole interview, because there's much more than is captured in the transcribed summary. The big theme of the day, though, is the abstract concept of "choice." In particular, education policymakers and writers need to spend more time interrogating the tension between "choice" as understood by education reformers, and "choice" as described by Hannah-Jones. The same word connotes radically different things, depending on the context. For example, Black parents in Boston today exercise "choice" when they enroll students in a charter school. White parents in Boston also were exercising choice when they moved out of the city in the 1970s to avoid integrated schools. That tension has become more acute, as public scrutiny on contemporary segregation has risen. Progressive education policymakers - on both the reform and traditionalist sides - are going to have to wrestle with what lies in the space between the two forms of "choice." (Hint: it might have something to do with socioeconomic privilege.)