IN HIS August 2nd op-ed “Education Freedom in New Hampshire,” Representative Glenn Cordelli highlighted a variety of programs parents can soon choose among as alternatives to those offered by our district schools, schools he acknowledges are “rated among the best” in the country.
Education Week‘s annual “Quality Counts,” for instance, rates New Hampshire third best in the country in the Chance-for-Success category, and US News rates our PreK-12 achievement results as fourth best.
In view of our public education system’s demonstrated promise for helping all types of kids succeed, including the potential of our fully-accountable charter schools in that regard, one might wonder why go to such curiously determined lengths to promote such a panoply of untested alternatives, especially when they pose a risk to the continuous improvement of our present system.
Toward the end of Rep. Cordelli’s op-ed, we get a glimpse of an answer to this question. He references the prolific Thomas Sowell and his claim that the question is not what is best, but who says what is best.
While this question appears to have inspired at least nine states so far to grant partisan entities the power to control the county election process (to the extent of overturning the actual results of a fair election?), the spotlight in the education context falls on parents as the all-important “who.” As the argument goes: parents are the rightful deciders of what’s best for their children and must have sufficient opportunity to exercise their freedom to choose (to the extent of making the wrong, perhaps harmful choice?).
The answer to the parenthetical questions above should assuredly be “no,” as most would have taken for granted during more reasonable times.
Unfortunately, however, we can now envision “yes” as a marked possibility. We see millions, for example, using their freedom to refuse vaccination or oppose masks despite the risk to their own health and the certainty of contributing to the wider illness and death of many others. Undeniably myopic and selfish we might conclude, yet we know these people to be anything but stupid and heartless in many other contexts where “freedom” has not been elevated to such an abstract level that its logical, real-world boundaries cannot even be imagined.
Why such fanatical subordination of asking what’s best, given specific circumstances, to asserting one’s exclusive claim on freedom to choose regardless of circumstances? Power to do so can be its own justification and might explain the motive in the political context. In an education context, the same motive can hide behind such good-hearted arguments as the need to give poor families the same opportunities to choose as wealthy families, or to meet the unique learning or social needs of students who do not thrive in traditional school settings.
For New Hampshire’s emerging options for school choice to be considered more than an assault on traditional public education in the disingenuous name of “freedom,” we should expect to see an associated effort to help parents be as critically discerning as possible in making their choices. We all have a huge stake in seeing that choices made by parents are based on standards and values that reflect our highest hopes for the state’s welfare, hopes that are obviously more urgent today than they were before misinformation and irrational distrust of expertise and government institutions had as much influence on people’s thinking.
If parents were to know, for example, that the quality of the teacher accounts for a far greater influence on student achievement than any other external factor, they might hesitate to place their children in a “micro school” under the supervision of a “learning guide,” essentially a low-paid aide hired to keep students focused on computer screens and read instructions for other “blended” activities day after day. Is it essential — or better left to “choice” — that all students have opportunities to interact with others of diverse racial backgrounds, that all students appreciate the potential of language to illuminate the truth of human experience and reject its power to promulgate lies and distrust, and that all students have significant opportunities to learn and practice the values and principles of democracy in any program or school of choice? How does “freedom” alone ensure that students become good citizens rather than victims of their parents’ potential for making bad choices?
“Freedom’s just another word for nothin’ left to lose,” as the song goes. To make freedom meaningful, we must assume responsibility for defining its limits and choosing common values.