In the science fiction movie Serenity, the follow up to the too-soon-cancelled TV show Firefly, the hero, Captain Mal Reynolds, is being pursued by an assassin (and the entire military), whose job is to protect Mal from discovering secrets he is not supposed to know. At one point the assassin says to a cornered Mal, “You can’t beat us.” Mal responds, “I got no need to beat you. I just want to go my way.” This is a great metaphor for arguments over American education policy, especially in the Common Core era. Some examples:
As Louisiana Governor Jindal noted in the Washington Post:
Millions of single parents in this country work two jobs to make ends meet, hoping that their children won’t have the same struggles. Hope is their only option because they live in neighborhoods with chronically failing public schools and lack the means to move to better school districts or to send their children to private schools.
Obama and Holder think this should continue to be the reality. In Louisiana, we think the opposite is true. We believe every child deserves the opportunity to get a great education.
That’s why we started a school choice program in 2008 in New Orleans and expanded it statewide in 2012. Low-income families with children in schools graded C, D or F by the state are eligible to apply for a scholarship and send their children to schools of their choice.
Others have pointed out the numbers – specifically how little the schools themselves would actually change under the program. But I think that’s secondary; the important change is within the students who were to get these new opportunities, whatever the numbers say.
Defenders of the U.S. Department of Education might say that the feds support choice, in the form of charter schools, especially because charter schools were encouraged in the Race to the Top competition. But this is empty rhetoric when charters are expected to look and behave like every other traditional public school. We have evidence that the federal government at the moment does not much respect or value creative or unique educational models or school choice, including:
Given the President’s remarks in Belfast this summer, that “If towns remain divided – if Catholics have their schools and buildings and Protestants have theirs, if we can’t see ourselves in one another and fear or resentment are allowed to harden—that too encourages division and discourages cooperation,” on top of all of these other examples, how much can we believe the federal government really respect anyone’s decision to send their children to a parish school? Or to participate in a homeschool co-op? Or to criticize the content their kids are being taught in their neighborhood public school, even? Maybe parents don’t need affirmation by the federal government, but the feds do seem to be getting more active in becoming obstacles to school choice.
Schooling is still a fairly local affair, but from student loans to health care to data use, the trends in the U.S. point to bigger and increasingly more centralized control, not toward decentralization. One major benefit of encouraging more school choice and more local control of education is that is decreases the pressure in our debates. Bad decisions are contained and affect fewer students, rather than being multiplied across whole counties or states, or the whole country. And because of their smaller nature, mistakes are more easily corrected. Go to a charter school conference sometime. One of the aspects I have seen several times is the live-and-let-live atmosphere; back to basics schools, constructivist schools, arts-based schools – all tend to coexist just fine, because they are all tending their own small gardens.
What’s really primary here, and what would actually bring about more social cohesion and comity, is standing up for the ability of parents to choose their children’s schools –to “go their own way.”