Wednesday, April 29, 2009

School Choice: Actual "Choice" or Emotionally-Laden Mindtrap?

As the traditional school year winds down, I've been thinking about the apparent complexitites of education and the chasms between the differing philosophies therein. This post errs a little on the philosophical side, so bear with me.

"School Choice" and Other Euphemisms

Euphemism: a word or phrase used in place of a term that might be considered too direct, harsh, unpleasant, or offensive.

In my experience, and as the fruit of many conversations, I've come to believe that the term "school choice" is a euphemism for many things, and probably varies somewhat by person and group.

Here's a partial list:

1. Parents, not the government, should be responsible for educating their children.
2. Our public school system is failing miserably and is far too liberal.
3. Education should be privatized and compete on the free market.

Personally, I don't think "school choice" has much to do with choice in education at all. I think it tends to be a euphemism for promoting whatever agenda it is disguising. In Utah, I think it serves as a smokescreen for the range of ideas I've just listed. I also think it's a term that hooks people emotionally and rallies them around a bandwagon that is not entirely transparent. For example, in the name of "school choice", groups of parents have started charter schools and/or supported vouchers for their children and communities...but have they unwittingly furthered an agenda to ultimately privatize education in Utah? I don't know, but I sure do wonder.

Now, I can be fair. Do I think there are many school choice advocates who sincerely want to improve education? Of course. Are many school choice advocates open to ideas, dialogue, and collaboration? I believe so. To any of you who fall into this category, kudos and please read on. Utah needs you.

Euphemisms and False Dichotomies

The problem I have with a euphemism like the term "school choice" is that it's an emotionally-charged way to set up a false dichotomy. It's a mindtrap that forces a complex issue into two false options. Even in casual conversation, let alone heated political debate, the very term divides people into proponents and opponents. However, the ideas around school choice are not mutually exclusive....we don't simply have choice or no choice. In my experience, it's a complicated mix of competing political, social, and economic ideologies.

In a free, democratic (okay, representative republic) society like America, aren't we all theoretically supportive of "school choice"? I mean, honestly, who in their right mind doesn't want to have a choice in how, where, and in what form they and their children are educated? The reality, at least in Utah, is that we all have choice in education. The public school system allows open enrollment options and non-traditional options like charter schools. Home schooling is a legal option, and private schools are available. For some families, I realize that these options might be purely theoretical. Open enrollment is nice, but you have to drive your students to the school of your choice. Charter schools enroll by random lottery, and private schools require often exorbitant tuition. For some families, these are practical barriers to real choices. I see many of the problems, but there must be better solutions than hiding behind divisive euphemisms. We all want choice, we currently do have choices available, and yet we deal with some very real barriers and challenges. What we need are real solutions.

So, if we're not talking about choice, what are we talking about? I think its about a clash of idealogies, barriers to practical solutions, and often, ego. There, I said it.

A Call for Real Dialogue, Not Idealogues

Idealogue: an often blindly partisan advocate of a particular ideology.

I tend to believe that if people can find enough common ground, solutions to previously perplexing problems often reveal themselves. I'm not completely delusional...I've seen it happen time and time again. However, it takes courage, honesty, humility, and genuine dialogue. Idealogues (and egomaniacs) need not apply. We need creative, collaborative, solution-oriented people who can move beyond tired euphemisms and over-zealous partisanship. I realize there are many idealogical chasms, but there must also be bridges.

As an observer of the complexities of education, I notice that using a term like "school choice" immediately creates division between the very people who could potentially create solutions. It creates a spirit and practice of partisanship that prevents solution-oriented dialogue and cooperation. Language is persuasive. It frames and defines our liberates or confines, it allows or denies, it illuminates or confuses.

Let's let go of the emotionally-laden mindtraps, open up some real dialogue, and figure out how to work together. Education is too critical a topic for euphemistic games.