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Posted at 04:00 AM ET, 04/10/2012

The inevitable dark side of ‘school choice’

This was written by Ann Geiger, who served on the Orange County School Board in Orlando, Fl., from 2004-2008. A native of Virginia, she lives in Arlington and blogs at www.publicpolicyblogger.com, where this appeared.

By Ann Geiger

At first glance, Ross Douthat’s recent column on religion seems unrelated to the reshaping of public education in the United States, but bear with me. Mr. Douthat believes the loss of a long-held “theological” center in our culture on one level demonstrates more abundant embrace of each others’ beliefs, but at the same time he sees an irretrievable trend away from shared values and common purpose to one more defined by personal choices and private pursuits.

“And the inescapability of religious polarization — whether it pits evangelicals against Mormons, the White House against the Catholic Church, or Rick Santorum against the secular press — during an election year that was expected to be all about the economy is a sign of what happens to a deeply religious country when its theological center cannot hold. ...

“But there are costs to being a nation in which we’re all heretics to one another, and no religious orthodoxy commands wide support. Our diversity has made us more tolerant in some respects, but far more polarized in others. The myth that President Obama is a Muslim, for instance, has its origins in Obama’s exotic-sounding name and Kenyan-Indonesian background. But it’s become so rooted in the right-wing consciousness in part because Obama’s prior institutional affiliation is with a church that seems far more alien to many white Christians than did the African-American Christianity of Martin Luther King Jr., or even Jesse Jackson. ...

“Americans have never separated religion from politics, but it makes a difference how the two are intertwined. When religious commitments are more comprehensive and religious institutions more resilient, faith is more likely to call people out of private loyalties to public purposes, more likely to inspire voters to put ideals above self-interest, more likely to inspire politicians to defy partisan categories altogether. But as orthodoxies weaken, churches split and their former adherents mix and match elements of various traditions to fit their preferences, religion is more likely to become indistinguishable from personal and ideological self-interest.”

From the beginning humans have sought “like kinds.” We now live in a country, a world, dominated by the algorithms and silos of technology we gleefully employ to sort ourselves into increasingly discrete groups. The tribal rooms of Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, Meetup, LinkedIn, Match.com, cable “news,” partisan blogs, etc. etc., etc. while miraculous in their ability to connect us, are also miraculous in their ability to sort and divide us. It should be no surprise in this environment religious and other community institutions are functioning more as tribal rooms than ever before.

In the United States, specifically, we layer on top our dedication to a free society built around the individualism of “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” and a market economy defined by choice and competition. If we were able to view our country from a great distance, it would be clear that thinking, believing and living in tiny, overlapping Venn diagrams, even with their personal and social advantages, are taking us away from broadly shared values and long-lasting common purpose. So, what, for heaven’s sake, does this have to do with public education?

Mr. Douthat makes the argument as Americans “mix and match elements of various traditions to fit their preferences,” religious institutions will inevitably “become indistinguishable from personal and ideological self-interest.” Public education in the United States, akin to our religious institutions sharing a “theological” center, was strongest when most agreed children educated together within public-funded, community-based schools was in the best interests of the individual child and society at large. There have always been private and parochial schools but the few who chose those options were seldom disgruntled that their tax dollars supported public schools since most believed in their greater public purpose. But that shared value is now in jeopardy.

Many politicians, pundits and policy wonks (of both political parties) now support public policies that create a competitive market of schools where parents are given choices that fulfill personal and ideological self-interest more than a common purpose. Yes, most in this coalition now support Common Core Standards, but those are aimed more toward “standardizing” standardized tests (upon which much focus and weight are now placed) than building common purpose. (Another problem for another day as it affects positively and negatively the traditional network of community-based public schools and the growing “market” of public school “choices.”)

Mr. Douthat predicts:

“But with the disappearance of a Christian center and the decline of institutional religion more generally, we lack the capacity to translate those desires into something other than what we’ve seen in this, the most theologically diverse of recent presidential elections — division, demonization and polarization without end.”

It can be argued school choice does not have the potential for such broad, disruptive reach, but the seeds are certainly there. New York City is a clear example where charter public schools are thrust (not democratically placed) inside traditional public schools often amidst great turmoil and deep resentment. No one can honestly say such actions do not fracture what is already in many cases fragile community fabric. New Orleans, Chicago, Washington, D.C., Los Angeles and other major cities (where most of this experimentation is taking place) comprise a mixed bag, but it’s not hard to find evidence of division, demonization and polarization not far from the surface.

With many immigrant families flowing into the United States, often from countries with pronounced educational inequities, instead of hearing the traditional American value of children learning together as the foundation of a strong democracy and healthy society, they hear, look out for your own interests, your own child, your own world. This haunts and disturbs me. What are the long-term consequences if so many of our young families, native-born and immigrant, hear that message? What kind of society will they build? What kind of future will their children have? While Mr. Douthat sees a troubled future from the perspective of religion, I see a similarly troubled future within the context of public education where personal interest is beginning to outweigh common purpose.

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