Reforming Education is Ultimately About Choice

At the end of Stephen Sondheim’s musical “Into the Woods,” the baker, now a single parent, tells the mysterious man who has been haunting him, “No more.” It is poignant but powerful as he realizes that running away for the reality of the world is no longer an option.

I thought about this last week, when I attended a live taping of the “Real Clear Radio Hour with Bill Frezza.” The guest was Stig Leschly, an Internet venture capitalist now focused on education reform as CEO of Match Education, which partners with foundations and city officials in places like Newark and Boston to create public charter schools aimed at disadvantaged urban youth. As Leschly made clear, the in K-12 education, the status quo is no longer an option.

The conversation was inspiring and encouraging. Match Education has had success remediating academic deficits in low-income students and placing 85 percent of its high school graduates in college. It can link improved student achievement directly with its teacher mentoring program. Its tutoring program, especially in math, is being replicated due to its success in moving students from understanding basic algebraic formulas to solving the complexities of calculus.

It was a narrative of lives changed and hope restored among communities whose future has been impeded by the status quo of a failed education system. I heartily applauded.

But on a flight the next day, over a patchwork of rural, suburban and urban, I came to a realization: The hill reformers like Leschly have to climb may be steeper than anyone had thought. That’s because the education reform debate has become tangled in entrenched ideologies. So, while I applaud each new venture that challenges the status quo, I fear that reform efforts compete for “best” way forward, rather than allow for a patchwork of experiments, each free to succeed in its own way.

And this is a problem. Because there is no One Way forward. Consider the rich variety in America’s education landscape.

There are the government school defenders whose focus isn’t so much on learning, but on the philosophical belief that public education is really about improving “citizenship.” But there are well performing government schools.

There are the teachers union supporters whose focus is on vocational preservation and political power rather than on achieving viable outcomes. But there are very good teachers who are union members.

There are home school advocates who can be isolationist in their championing the literal ownership of their children’s education. But they have forced higher education to take them seriously.

There are charter school supporters who work within the government school structure to strip out bureaucracy to create successful institutions, though they are susceptible to criticisms that they still take a certain “cream of the crop.”

There are private school-only elites for whom school reform is an esoteric question, but whose passions have created and funded institutions aimed at the most at-risk children.

Reforming education is ultimately about choice. But choice for all does not mean all get the same choice. We live in a society of disparate opportunities, talents, values, and consequences. Choice for all is free enterprise. All getting the same choice is socialism. If we are going to progress, we need to come to terms with the distinction. Unfortunately, that will be a non-starter for many.

We must stop the ideological tit-for-tat that dominates the right and left debate over education. You want reform? Recognize there is no one solution. Start by favoring any good educational setting, no matter what form it takes. And do away with any bad educational setting, in whatever form it takes.

Parental choice is key—but it requires informed parents. And there is the rub. Our participatory democracy, especially at the local level, has gone awry. Having a say at that local level matters. But as Stig Leschly pointed out, in Boston proper voting turnout on education issues draws less than 12 percent. And Boston isn’t an outlier. So of course individual parents face long odds fighting the institutional corruption that dominates interest group politics.

We who value economic liberty over majority rule do so out of a fear of populism. But we also must keep in mind that the parent whom we feel should have choice simply does not have the time, resources, or patience to be involved. And we who engage in policy debate often do so at the interest group level. But it’s not that simple. It never was.

So what to do? Perhaps a good place to start is the baker’s admonition to the mysterious man: “No more.”

No more giants waging war. Can’t we just pursue our lives with our children and our wives? Til that happy day arrives, how do you ignore all the witches, all the curses, all the wolves, all the lies, the false hopes, the goodbyes, the reverses. All the wondering what even worse is still in store?

Please, no more.