The "Perverse Irony" of School Choice?

I was in a hurry yesterday and briefly commented on an article that I think merits more discussion.

The full original article is here
. Joe Carter is writing of the decision some evangelical parents make to deliberately move into poor neighborhoods with struggling public schools and broken communities. Their goal is to become intimately involved in communities that need help, to be part of the solution, to be part of an effort to convert from the ground up. You can read more about that here.

Joe Carter disagrees for a few reasons. One of them is this:

Needless to say, this type of “school choice”—moving in a few white, middle-class Christian children into an impoverished minority public school—will do absolutely nothing to restore “a community struggling against generational poverty.” What it does, however, is reveal one of the perverse ironies of “educational choice.” Those of us in favor of broader educational choices often assume that parents will choose to maximize their child’s educational opportunities. The reality, though, is that if given a wide range of choices, some parents will choose to send their child to a particular school for reasons that have almost nothing to do with education. Some will choose a school based on the sports program or other extra-curricular activities. And some, like the parents mentioned in the CT article, will choose to send their children to a particular school in order to make a socio-theological statement.

This post nearly writes itself with that paragraph.

1. “Needless to say?” That is begging the question, a much abused phrase that is precisely the rhetorical fallacy used here. It is in fact, very needful that Joe explain just why we should believe his assumption that the gospel cannot change lives and that changed lives cannot change the community in which those lives are based. It is needful for Joe to say why privately based work stemming from an individual and personal is not to be preferred over government solutions.

2. This is a strawman anyway. The parents he is criticizing do not believe that it the presence of their children alone that will bring about change. The original article calls the inclusion of the children a ‘key part’ of their strategy, not the only element. They believe the gospel is first, relationships next. They were invited to the community to begin with, and that matters to them. There was already a strong church involvement, and that was also important. Each family is involved in local organizations that serve the poor- a medical program, a nonprofit charity. The question of where to educate their children did not come up until after a few years of involvement in the community for the simple reason that they didn’t have children when they moved there. All of the parents discussed in the article are deeply involved in their local schools- some as teachers. There is a principal, a member of the school board, and PTA members.

2a. It’s not an accurate representation of the original article, either. The title of the original article is “The New School Choice Agenda,” but it’s not just about where parents send their children. For example:

Christians are in one way or another investing in local public schools, using a variety of strategies to help turn things around. Nicole Baker Fulgham, a Detroit native, for years taught with Teach for America, a non-profit that trains teachers to work in low-income communities. After serving as Teach for America’s vice president of faith community relations, last fall she founded the Expectations Project, which equips churches, nonprofits, and individuals to help low-income public schools. “I’ve been blown away in the past couple of years by the receptivity and interest of the Christian community,” says Fulgham, who is based in Washington, D.C. “We now have solutions to some of the problems and so we can mobilize faith communities to respond.”

Reading Joe Carter’s article you might get the impression that the main approach these modern missionaries have to improving their local schools is simply sending their own white bread kids to them. But this is far from accurate:

But the most comprehensive effort to address the academic needs of students in the neighborhood has been spearheaded by Matt Illian. He has assembled a taskforce of current and future parents to make Chimborazo the first Richmond City elementary school that follows the International Baccalaureate methodology. The IB initiative would involve overhauling the entire curriculum and training every teacher. But Principal Burke has championed the initiative from its inception, and the vast majority of Burke’s staff voted in support of the curriculum change. The Richmond School Board unanimously supported it.

As Illian says, “We got momentum going because we wanted to support the local elementary school. This wasn’t just for our children. All children [in the area] will receive a world-class education.” Illian’s taskforce has committed to raising over $400,000 to fund the teacher training and media and material upgrades, in order to reach full authorization in May 2014.

3.  IRONY?  I do not think that word means what he thinks it means (I’m doing these bulletpoints in the order they come out in the original paragraph. Otherwise, this would be #1.)  Somehow the ‘irony’ of school choice is that parents will make choices Joe does not admire or agree with? That’s not ‘irony.’ That’s liberty. And he doesn’t even leave it at irony, remember, he calls this parental freedom a perverse irony.  He criticizes parents who won’t use school choice to ‘maximize’ their kids’ educational opportunities. Leave aside for a moment the reality that for some families, choosing a school with a good sports program is part of their strategy for maximizing their kids’ educational opportunities.The parents in question believe they are doing what is best for their children as well.  They weighed their options and are quoted as saying they believed their kids would get more than they would lose.
It isn’t some kind of loathsome bug that with school choice come, well, choices.It’s a feature. Children are not one size fits all, nor are the solutions and programs for them one size fits all, and strangers are not the best judges of the best school for my child or yours.

He also complains that the efforts these missionally minded parents are making- volunteering, becoming teachers in those schools, mentoring others, are:
“….individualistic stopgap measures for long-term institutional problems.” The story of these missional minded families helps, in his view, “to highlight the difference between activism that is personally fulfilling and policy advocacy that can actually effect change.”

We’ve already seen that the real parents in the original article are not merely acting on an individual basis. They aren’t merely playing at some lone ranger personal fulfillment goals. They are involved in the community and in community organizations.

But I am troubled by what I must infer about his preferred solutions.  They must, it seems, be institutionally minded, government, paternalistic, bureaucratic.

I like DocWeasel’s satirical response:

I think the best thing to do is throw more money at these schools, federal money. This gives the federal government more power over what is taught and who teaches it. It’s deplorable to see individual effort try to supplant the power and majesty of the federal government. If this trend spreads, it could spell the end of the federal spoils system, allegiance from client groups to the democrat party and finally the end of the bureaucracy dominated society as we know it. Good to see you trying to nip this kind of thing in the bud.

I believe that bureaucratic mindset contributed to the problems to begin with.  The cure is not more of the dog that bit us in the first place.

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