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It’s Time to Bite the Bullet on Education Policy

Have you ever felt like you were drinking out of a fire hydrant? That’s exactly how I felt after participating in the K-12 education track during the 2017 Values & Capitalism Summer Honors Program. After being ably guided through a crash course on education policy by Dr. Michael McShane (Show-Me Institute and AEI), our instructor for the week, my respect only deepened for those that have to deal with complex policy issues on a daily basis. I learned that policy issues, including those pertaining to education, are multi-faceted and thus require a more nuanced response than one would initially expect. Unfortunately, many people (myself included) have the tendency to daydream and yearn for a copy-paste, one-size-fits-all solution. In addition to these more general takeaways, I learned of three things in particular that are important to keep in mind when discussing issues pertaining to the topic of school choice.

1. The Terms

Perhaps the first and foremost thing to consider when engaging in a discussion on school choice is to define the terms. Part of the reason for the confusion and dissension between those in favor of school choice and those against it is that there can be a tendency to talk past each other due to different sets of vocabulary. This complication is further compounded by our unwillingness to understand the flip side of the coin. This is completely human. However, in order to cut through the layers of complexity to any issue, it is essential to understand what the other side’s position is. For example, Dr. McShane made the point that an important question to ask when evaluating policy proposals is the phrase “compared to what?” Whenever we are seeking to evaluate the merits of a certain program or policy, we must first establish the standard by which it will be judged.

2. The Tradeoffs

A second thing to consider when conversing with others about public policy is to recognize that there are tradeoffs. Dr. McShane mentioned that one of the main learning outcomes he wanted us to walk away with is the importance of working on how we think about these issues. A big part of that puzzle is acknowledging the existence of tradeoffs. For any policy, there will be winners and there will be losers; most policies are Pareto-optimal. This stands in stark contrast to the Pollyannaish attitude with which we sometimes approach a certain policy decision or proposal, and in our pluralistic society we will often have to make sacrifices for the common good. Ultimately, we must remember that optimism without honesty is insincerity.

3. The Truth

Speaking of honesty, we come to the third thing we must contemplate: the truth. So far we have touched on the importance of defining terms and the need to acknowledge the existence of tradeoffs to policy solutions. Despite these two caveats, it should be noted that there is significant statistical evidence for the efficacy of school choice. The fourth edition of a report from the Friedman Foundation titled “A Win-Win Solution: The Empirical Evidence on School Choice” provides a comprehensive summary of the many studies done regarding school choice. The results? It was found that school choice had a mostly positive (and sometimes neutral) effect on academic outcomes, integration in schools, the stewardship of taxpayer money, and the cultivation of civic values.

However, it can be very easy to forget that behind every statistic there is a face, behind every data point there is a name, and behind every piece of evidence there is a story. So often we do such a good job of providing the facts that we forget to demonstrate the heart of our position. Admittedly, some people will simply not be persuaded regardless of what you say or do, but that doesn’t mean we stop trying. We must remember that how we say things is equally important to what we say (Ephesians 4:15). When it comes to school choice, we need to showcase both the head and the heart. If we simply focus on the head by sharing statistics, then it might be perceived by others as being rather coldhearted. If we simply focus on the heart in making our arguments, then it could come across as being over-emotional and insincere. We need facts tempered by compassion and compassion tethered to facts.

Policy is not a panacea, but policy can still affect much change in the world for good. The important thing is to define the terms from the get go, acknowledge the unintentional consequences of well-intentioned policies, and speak the truth in love. There is no silver bullet solution for fixing our education system, as Dr. McShane stated during one of our class sessions. After all, we do live in a fallen world (Romans 8:22). Yet we should never be without hope. We must remain laser-focused on building a consensus around policies that most effectively promote and aid in the achievement of human flourishing, of which education is a fundamental element.

So where do we begin? We begin by hunkering down to do the challenging work of persuading others of the merits of school choice within the marketplace of ideas and biting the bullet on education policy, with the knowledge that true change starts with you and me.