Testing Choice

I get The New York Times. Each morning, it identifies the world’s battlegrounds — military and ideological, political and economic. I discount and forgive its plainly “liberal” bent. If I owned a paper, it would have a tone of sorts.

But there are limits. One, I suggest, is the duty of all media, at an ethical minimum, to recognize, if only to dismiss, plausible arguments on all sides of any public issue. Readers deserve to know the writer’s pre-judgments.

The Times is a collection of heady folk; one expects the best from them. Sadly, along with most of their profession, they have remained silent on the strongest argument for extending to the lower-income parent the same power of choice among all educators that is available, and so precious, to our middle- and upper-income classes.

In April, the Times offered its view on the efficacy of one form of empowerment for the non-rich under the headline: “Vouchers Found to Lower Test Scores in Washington Schools.” The article discussed a study originating from the anti-voucher Obama Department of Education; it found that vouchers for choice of private schools by poor families in D.C. were followed by slightly lower scores on required tests. The Times cited a few concurring studies but strangely failed to note that these reports contradict two dozen other professional analyses.

But that particular form of selective reportage is not the only concern here. Much more troubling is the Times writer’s assumption that test scores are the litmus test for success in school, and that, if scores slightly declined, there would be no justification for letting poor parents make those choices so dear to the rest of us.

The test score infatuation is still widely shared by the media. Historically, it stems in considerable part from the purely economic argument for choice so welcome to the utilitarian minds of the ’60s and even today.

Expressing success in numbers was the rage — and remains so. Of course, there is plenty of justification for testing, but to make it the gospel of choice was and remains problematic, although I concede it has been the prime mover in attracting deep-pocket support for the political promotion of universal school choice. These believers have read all the test scores.

But this intellectual behavior has shrunk the debate, and the media has followed. Consider another recent headline, this time for a column in The Times, also grounded upon the D.C. Study and conforming to the media model: “School choice works while vouchers don’t.” This lusty dismissal of vouchers as something implicitly distinct from choice is simply incoherent. Are food stamps (vouchers) not a device for choice at the market? And does the food they pay for not “work?” The column is simply a veiled curse upon private and religious schools as objects of subsidized choice for the poor.

If test scores count — and they do — they count ever so much less than what matters most to the parent and society. Choice is good simply to the extent that it is real empowerment of the parent. If vouchers provide mothers and fathers the widest selection among legally valid educational experiences, they are by definition the most appropriate mechanism.

The poor thereby experience the same authority and responsibility as the middle class. It’s the awakening to their own human efficiency — of personal power to seek and choose the best hope for their child. The parent is made whole; she finds herself at last in the game of life empowered and entrusted to look, find, and herself in turn empower her agent for the child’s experience of thirteen years. She can experience the child’s failure with one provider, and seek a better one, because she can correct mistakes, she reigns, and the schools will confirm her authority with the keenest solicitation.

The child witnesses the parents’ exercise of their responsibility; gradually he comes to understand that he, too, can hope to experience this same absorbing role in maturity. The family ceases to be a cluster of powerless observers; there is a point to family conversation at dinner, to homework, to talk shared with neighbors about the character and quality of various schools. Moynihan was right. The impotent parent becomes a civic peril; we all need responsibility, and the capacity to discharge it.

On this note we can at last say friendly kudos to the Times for this recent wisdom from David Brooks:

Over the longer term, it will be necessary to fight alienation with participation, to reform and devolve the welfare state so that recipients are not treated like passive wards of the state, but take an active role in their own self-government.

One would have expected scholars of education and family life to shower us with empirical evidence of the impact, if any, upon parental attitudes and civic behaviors wrought by the family’s vaccuum of responsibility and capacity to choose the child’s professional educators. A few years ago I wrote a distinguished social scientist asking him for reasons for this intellectual drought. The reply: the silence of the intellectual is a mode of self-protection. The union and fellow academics would not favor serious empirical reportage on this question from some tenure-seeker — or even themselves.

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BY John E. Coons

John E. Coons is a professor of law, emeritus, University of California at Berkeley, and author with Stephen D. Sugarman of "Private Wealth and Public Education" and "Education by Choice."