What follows is an adaptation of a speech to the Rhode Island chapter of the America’s Future Foundation.
This is the third annual Justin Talks About School Choice event before this group, and it’s not easy to come up with something new to say every year. It’s not easy because the issue never seems to go anywhere in Rhode Island.
When the HBO series Game of Thrones was nearing its end, fans complained about one scene in particular. Our heroes had traveled north and were trapped on a rock in the middle of an ice lake, surrounded by an army of undead soldiers… who could not, for some reason, find a way to get fifty feet or so across to them.
Of course, any fan could have predicted that the heroine would fly in with her dragons and save her allies, but the complaint was that it all happened too quickly. For the sake of the story, the producers had bent the map of Westeros to get her across the continent in a short period of time. Why? Because they couldn’t have so many of the main characters sitting on a rock for multiple episodes. Who would want to watch that?
That’s what school choice advocacy feels like in Rhode Island sometimes, and I’ve started to feel like the problem (at least to start) has less to do with the opposition than the support.
At a recent school choice event in Rhode Island put on by Rhode Island Families for School Choice, I saw a movie called Miss Virginia about school choice. One scene and scene really resonated with me. The main character, Virginia Walton, wanted to find a way to get her son out of substandard and violent D.C. public schools, so she went to Congress to talk with a representative from another state who had been a school choice advocate. He told her they’d tried to get a policy passed in the city, but “parents in poverty with kids in terrible schools will therefore remain in poverty; the parents just didn’t want it.” Miss Virginia said she didn’t believe him, and he told her, “it doesn’t matter what you believe; no one wanted it.”
As much as I share the congressman’s cynicism, I can understand Virginia’s skepticism. Families should want increased opportunity, and moreover, they say they do when polled. In 2012, the RI Center for Freedom & Prosperity and the Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice polled Rhode Islanders on the issue and found that they knew things weren’t going in the right direction, as the following chart shows. Of the 20 states in which the question was asked, Rhode Island parents were the most likely to say that public education was on the wrong track. In fact, Rhode Island was one of only two states in which parents were less likely to say that schools were on the right track than the general public.
Parents know something’s not right. They also favor a school voucher system. When the system is explained to them, more than 60% of parents favor it.
Unfortunately, they don’t actually step up. Why?
At the high end of income, maybe public school parents feel guilt that they could afford private school already if they’d just sacrifice a little. In the middle, maybe they have concerns that they’ll lose what they already have (that their OK school will lose money or bring in students who are used to bad schools) without providing a price they feel they can afford for private alternatives.
At the low end of income, I don’t know. This is where school choice advocates see the most support, but it’s also where you find the people least well positioned to demand change or to organize toward it. And there are all sorts of cultural challenges, including partisan allegiance. Lower-income families tend to be in the party dominated by the teachers union.
On top of it all, people who are generally advocates for freedom get caught up on the idea of taking government money to give to individuals or private organizations, especially if they might be religious.
Over the years, I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about why this all is and what to do about it. It just feels like there’s this powerful potential out there to dramatically change things for the better — to improve our academics and our economy, to increase our sum of freedom, and to decrease the power of the special interests.
Two proximate events in Rhode Island really got the wheels turning in my brain. The first was on MLK Day, when I walked into Park Theater for the movie mentioned above, and every seat had a yellow scarf on it, which is the signature of the School Choice Week campaign.
To give more detail about Miss Virginia, it’s about the woman who led the charge for a school-choice system in Washington, D.C., and the resulting program worked. High school graduation rates where vouchers were offered were up significantly:
And as can be seen using the Center’s online tool showing results of the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) test across the country, Washington, D.C., schools made huge progress during and after the program’s implementation.
Given these results in urban Washington, it isn’t surprising, that Park Theater was filled with a large number of minority families for an event from the right side of the political aisle.
A few days later, I turned on Twitter and saw this:
Those are images from the Facebook page of Republican state Senator Elaine Morgan, and it took a minute for my mind to adjust to the significance of all this yellow. For a second, I thought it must have been another school-choice event, but this time, the color was representing support for the Second Amendment. These are gun-rights advocates, and there was a line to get into the State House.
The direct political action from such a large number of people immediately raised two questions:
- Why did the Second Amendment rally drive this many people to direct political action?
- What if we could unite the people in both of the above pictures together?
That’s not impossible. Even just the fact that, for example, Republican state Representative Michael Chippendale was prominent at both events shows that.
I’m talking way beyond political power, here. Imagine if the sort of folks who support Second Amendment rights began to socialize and share ideas with the sort of folks who support educational freedom and who would benefit most from it. If we started to see just how much we have in common — Man! — the progressives would be terrified.
So let’s think about the differences between the two issues:
The “basic impulse” row is probably the decisive one when it comes to different outcomes for the issues, and that’s interesting, because we’re seeing those two ideas battle over guns. In this photo from the Providence Journal, we see the “we have to do something” side in red, and the “leave me alone” side in yellow:
These are the two major impulses of American politics, and they aren’t always in conflict. In fact, they’re strongest — maybe insurmountable — when they are combined. Think of same-sex marriage. Now, I think the narrative was wrong and even deceptive, pushing that issue, but with a massive, culture-wide marketing campaign, it was sold as if it was doing something about injustice and discrimination (such as referring to black civil rights) and leaving people alone (“love is love”).
When it comes to school choice, advocates’ focus has been on “we have to do something.” Our public schools are failing, and that’s why the policies that advocates lead with are to help kids in the most failing schools. But the issue also has a strain of “leave me alone,” especially if we rephrase to “just let my kids learn. Let them have a chance, an opportunity, to make it.”
I think it can be put more forcefully than that, though. You’re forced to pay into our nation’s education system at every level of taxation (local, state, federal), and yet, if you’re not a secular progressive, the public schools teach a worldview starkly at odds with your beliefs. I mean… “leave me alone.” Let me educate my children the way I think they should be educated. At least let parents have some of the money they are forced to pay for education to cover their own children’s education.
In Miss Virginia, Virginia Walton worked endless hours, and she came up just a bit short on the private-school tuition. Leave her alone. At least a little. Let her keep some of those taxes to cover the margin.
Because if we don’t allow that, what are we saying? Taking our money for failing public schools is not even “we have to do something”; it’s “we can’t risk doing anything.” And it’s definitely not “leave me alone”; it’s “your kids must go to the schools we set up for you, whether they’re any good and whether they brainwash future generations of your own family to believe something completely opposed to your beliefs.”
If you’re a Second Amendment advocate, imagine if you could send your children to a school with skeet shooting or a mandatory gun safety and electives using guns. Think of how that would prepare them to safeguard their rights… and protect those rights… rather than look for government to protect them from scary guns. That’s the argument I make for school choice as a Christian, but applied to the Second Amendment.
This is how we get all those people on the same side: in a “leave me alone” coalition that offers another answer to helping people out, to doing something, because everybody’s interests are served. We’re doing something, and we’re leaving each other alone.
If we can get that going, I’ll have no trouble coming up with something new to say at this event next year.