In a fascinating example of appropriating the arguments of one’s opponents and subverting them to his own aims, Cato’s Neal McCluskey posits vouchers as a solution to the evolution vs. creationism/intelligent design brouhaha that’s been getting so many panties in a twist in states (esp. Kansas) and school districts lately. Matthew Yglesias (from whose blog I came across the piece, not myself being in the habit of perusing Cato’s website, since I already know exactly what they’re going to say–vouchers are the solution!–in response to every imaginable educational issue), has an interesting take on this.
My response is that this is a great example of why vouchers or other forms of increased choice must be accompanied by public accountability. I strongly believe it’s a good thing for parents to be able to choose schools for their children that match with youngsters’ unique personalities and itnerests, respect families’ values and heritages, and use teaching methods that the parents endorse. But I also believe, even more strongly, that the public has both an equity and economic interest in ensuring that all children master essential knowledge and skills–particularly when they’re being educated on the taxpayers’ dime. If my neighbor wants to send her kid to an Esperanto bilingual school that organizes instruction around organic farming, I don’t necessarily have a problem with that. I wouldn’t send my hypothetical kids there, but, then, I’m not her. But I do have a huge problem if the kids aren’t learning to read and do math at the level they need to be. That’s where state standards and accountability systems come into play.
Similarly, I don’t necessarily have a problem if my neighbor wants to send her kids to a school that teaches intelligent design. But I do have a problem if they aren’t getting adequate instruction in biology to think about the increasingly complex issues–stem cell research, DNA evidence, the impacts of environmental change on biological diversity–that adults need to be able to think about to engage in public debates in our society today.
This is a little difficult because science standards are inherently a more complicated idea than standards in reading and math, particularly when it comes to issues of curriculum sequencing, and Kansas illustrates the political difficulty in establishing quality science standards. There’s a bit of a tension here between my desire to avoid politically toxic and distracting state level debates over things like evolution, and my conviction that choice needs to be accompanied by accountability. But, ultimately, I think there’s a way to square this circle if we think well about it and allow our concept of accountability to broaden somewhat.
Finally, Matt also points out an odd quirk of education policy debates that’s one of the reasons I find the topic intellectually interesting. In a culture and goverment based strongly around principles of individual liberty, rights, and freedom, children occupy an unusual position. Because children’s immaturity prevents them from being able to fully exercise their freedoms, certain adults (parents), have the right to make decisions for them. But these parental rights are also mixed with remnants of a long common law history that treated children essentially as chattel. And, in the past century there’s been an increasing recognition that society at large has an interest in children’s well-being and in developing their abilities to fully participate in the economy and democracy as adults. As a result, issues involving children force us to struggle with what we really mean when we think and talk about freedom, how to reconcile the competing claims of different individual rights and public interests, and what society’s role should be in defending those who cannot speak for themselves.