Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Life, Liberty, and Milk

Choice alone doesn't create democracy.  Meaningless choice can link the chains of complacency.

I enjoy the fact that I can choose from hundreds of breakfast cereals.  When I’m feeling bold I love me some Fruity Pebbles, but when I want to feel a little healthy I’ll go for the Fiber One.  Is this the freedom that comes at so high a cost?

Choice as freedom characterizes 21st century political thinking.  We fight wars in the name of freedom and ask the ultimate sacrifice from some while trying our very best to keep everything normal at home.  As long as I can buy what I want it’s o.k., right?

During the last local election, I cast a ballot for five offices.  Three of the five were unopposed.  But I could still choose from over fifty different brands and styles of soda when I visited the market.

I only get three-minutes per meeting to talk if I want an audience with my local board of supervisors, and it’s one way, not dialogue.  But after I talk, I can choose from a few hundred different restaurants for my family to eat.

I had to maintain a distance of at least 75 feet from the president’s motorcade when he passed my house on the way to the airport.  But with the phone I picked this summer I was able to take a pretty good video.
Sometimes I wonder if the choices that don’t really matter obscure the fact that I’m not getting a chance to influence some of the choices that really make a difference and impact my life.

I’m not arguing against choice, but perhaps sometimes we’re placated with the idea of choice just to keep us satisfied enough to give up real choice and participation in decision-making.  

And so, we’re sold the idea of “school-choice” as the answer to the problems of education.  Here is an excerpt from Jeb Bush’s speech at the Republican National Convention last week:

Education is hard work, but if you follow some core principles, and you challenge the status quo, you get great results.  So here’s another thing we can do: Let’s give every parent in America a choice about where their child attends school. Everywhere in our lives, we get the chance to choose.  Go down any supermarket aisle - you’ll find an incredible selection of milk.  You can get whole milk, 2% milk, low-fat milk or skim milk. Organic milk, and milk with extra Vitamin D.  There’s flavored milk-- chocolate, strawberry or vanilla - and it doesn’t even taste like milk. They even make milk for people who can’t drink milk. 

Shouldn’t parents have that kind of choice in schools? Governor Romney gets it. He believes parents - regardless of zip code or income - should be able to send their child to the school that fits them best.

That has set him against some entrenched interests.  There are many people who say they support strong schools but draw the line at school choice.  “Sorry, kid. Giving you equal opportunity would be too risky. And it will upset powerful political forces that we need to win elections.”  I have a simple message for these masters of delay and deferral: Choose.

You can either help the politically powerful unions. Or you can help the kids. (1)
Now, I know it’s hard to take on the unions. They fund campaigns. They’re well-organized. Election day? They’ll show up.  Meanwhile, the kids aren’t old enough to vote. (2)

Choice is not a bad thing, but politicians are selling us a false hope for meaningful choice.  Current reform efforts highlight the problems of public education, and instead of investing in problem-solving, they declare the problems “unsolvable” in the current system.  Environmental issues of poverty are written off as irrelevant and options that show short-term promise in isolated cases free of restrictions placed on public schools are offered as proof that the solutions to the problems of public education rest only outside of the system.

In my school district, we currently have an alternative public charter school that functions in tandem with the county system, a vocational school run jointly by the county and city, an engineering academy housed in one of the three comprehensive high schools, and a health sciences academy housed in another.  All of our students have the opportunity to move in these directions when it fits their interests and needs.  The district enjoys strong public support even in the midst of a range of private school offerings.  And we still work to expand choices and opportunities for parents and students.

The future of public education depends of the issue of choice.  It’s not even a dichotomy of “choice vs. no choice.”  It is a question of what kind of choice and how we make sure it is for the benefit of children.  Choice that funnels public money into private hands to do education on the cheap won’t help.  Choice that allows dollars to follow children in order to increase the profit of online providers won’t help.  Choice that promotes ideology instead of pedagogy to inform the education of our children won’t help.  Choice that makes avoiding rather than working through a difficult situation won’t help. This kind of choice won’t improve education anymore than an incredible selection of milk will improve health.  

But what about the milk.  The red bottle with the rabbit on front sure does draw my child’s attention.  I hear that organic might not even be healthier than the regular.  The Strawberry milk costs more, but maybe my kids will drink more milk if it tastes better.  Is the extra sugar worth the extra calcium?  It does look really good and it makes the kid happy and after all, it is about the kids.  Right?

Post-Script- I couldn't just ignore a few other points from Jeb Bush's address so I've footnoted below.

1) I’m not in a union and Virginia doesn’t have them.
2)Saying kids can’t vote is a back door way of saying that since I don’t agree with you I don’t really have their interest in mind.  That’s like me saying, “Hey Jeb, you don’t govern the way I think you should.  I know your family has given their entire lives to public service, but be honest, you’re in it for the money right.  You don’t care about people.”


  1. And, in response to the PS about unions - It's pretty disingenuous to call out the unions as big campaign spenders and powerful forces, especailly if you compare that money to the funds channeled into campaigns by corporations. Corporate spending (including corporations with educational interests) DWARFS spending by unions. Just another, in a century-long attempt to paint organized labor (i.e., american workers) as the bogey-man and the real obstacle to progress and democracy. How Bush believes his own words must be one of the greatest examples of cognitive dissonance ever. The whole party clearly believes their own self-made delusion. (sg)

    1. I saw a poster that said United We Bargain, Divided we beg. Maybe it has been around for a while, but I'd never heard it. Makes sense.