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Another left-leaning case for the new definition of public education

Milton Friedman and his free-market ideas may have been anathema to the political left, but he was right about one thing: School choice.

Daniel Grego, the director of Milwaukee’s TransCenter for Youth and an acolyte of the likes of Ivan Illich and Wendell Berry, made that case in the journal Encounter. His argument, outlined in a 2011 article we stumbled upon recently, is worth highlighting, in part, because it reinforces a theme we’ve explored on this blog for quite some time: The left-of-center appeal of educational choice.

“It is time for people on the left to overcome ‘the nonthought of received ideas’ and admit that giving poor families resources is a progressive public policy,” Grego wrote.

The writer helped lead an ill-fated effort, backed by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, to bring more “small schools” to his city. An article in Milwaukee Magazine said he was intent on ending “the longtime war” between public-school supporters and advocates of the city’s pioneering school voucher program.

And while he wound up sharing Friedman’s conclusions about the benefits of educational choice, he followed a different intellectual path to arrive at that position. 

Grego wasn’t preoccupied with markets or competition. Rather than thinking of an education system as a group of schools run by a single entity, he argued, we should start by looking at individual children and thinking about all the institutions that might help meet their educational needs. Then, we should give each child resources to access those institutions – some of which might not be schools, at least as we think of them today.

He wrote:

When we clearly distinguish education from schooling, when we understand that schools are only one of the tools communities use in the educational process, we can begin to ask ourselves new questions: What are we trying to do? Are we using the right tools for the task? Do we have enough different kinds of tools to get the job done well? Does everyone have equal access to all the tools? Have we kept our tools within appropriate limits? Has any tool become counterproductive? Are different tools needed for different students?

Wendell Berry (2003, 184) recounts a conversation between a well-known, highly respected horse trainer and someone curious about his methods. “How do you train horses?” the latter asks. The former replies, “Which one do you have in mind?” If such a response makes sense for horses, then surely, given the complexity of human development, the answer to the question “How do you educate children?” must be “Which one do you have in mind?”

Instead of beginning with the pernicious abstraction of the average child and sorting students into the “gifted and talented” at one end of the Bell Curve and those in need of “special education” at the other, we need a vision of education predicated on the belief that every person is special and has unique gifts and talents. Since no two children are identical, there cannot be one best way to educate all of them. Our new vision must include enough diverse learning environments so all students can choose the ones in which they will flourish.

“Learning environments” is the right phrase. Children learn all the time and, as Brownson noted, in many different places. People do not need schools in order to learn as hundreds of thousands of homeschooled children demonstrate every year. Among the many tools that contribute to education are libraries, museums, science and nature centers, zoos, parks, fairs, carnivals, the media, the internet, travel, summer camps, and swimming, dance, and music lessons. Apprenticeships and internships are at least as effective learning tools as classrooms.

When people talk about “customized learning” or “the new definition of public education,” this is an example of what they mean.

Grego seems to echo the thoughts of other scholars and practitioners, including the Berkeley professors who hatched an idea that sounded a lot like education savings accounts. Their proposal would have allowed families to access a range of different educational providers and approaches, and distributed resources equitably.

The battle over this vision is a big part of what drives today’s conflicts over the future of public education. But those conflicts don’t fit neatly into a left-right divide.

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BY Travis Pillow

Travis Pillow is Director of Thought Leadership at Step Up For Students and editor of NextSteps. He lives in Sanford, Fla. with his wife and two children. A former Tallahassee statehouse reporter, he most recently worked at the Center on Reinventing Public Education, a research organization at Arizona State University, where he studied community-led learning innovation and school systems' responses to the Covid-19 pandemic. He can be reached at tpillow (at)