Left of what?

From another place I take my name.

— Edmund Spenser

The movement for school choice is principally a work of three quite distinct ideological camps:

(1) Those who would limit parental choice to public schools, typically through open enrollment and charters. Democrats for Education Reform is a leading promoter of this sort of reform that is limited to the government sector.

(2) Those who would subsidize choice among all schools — private and public, religious or secular. Parents would be financially empowered, and participating schools would seek a degree of economic class variety in admissions. This is the oldest of these types, dating to 1978; these activists label their vision “Centrist.” The American Center for School Choice was a signal example.

(3) Activists favoring parental empowerment for tuition at all schools but typically leaving participating schools completely in control of admissions and recruiting policy and free to charge add-on tuition. The Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice is an example of those favoring such a seller-controlled market. Many among them prefer the title “libertarian.”

The media have at times dubbed the Centrists the “voucher left”; doubtless, if such a figure of speech is allowed, they third group in turn could be the “voucher right.”

The left-right cartoon amuses, and this blog has occasionally featured it; but it also diverts us from the nature of the significant differences among the three camps favoring some form of choice. I conclude that — barring the case of circles — “centers” do tend to be left of right; but anyone seeking clarity will object to the confusion that “left” causes in the present case considering that Democrats for Education Reform is to the “left” of the American Center. The only valid question is left of what, how far, and in what respects. The Center, so appraised, is left of the Friedman as Bernie is left of Hillary and she of Cruz on the right; which makes her what – a leftist? Think about it.

Consider briefly what would move the school choice libertarian to interpret the Center as left. The most sensitive aspect is the Center’s preference for sharing a measure of control between school and parent over disclosure of information, recruiting practice, admissions and expulsion. Here, more specifically, are four aspects in dispute (1) parent access to information – test scores, teacher qualification, graduation, college attainment and so on; (2) the school’s system for admission decisions; (3) rules and procedure for discipline and for expulsion for academic failure; (4) imposition of add-on tuition and parental duties at the school.

I will enlarge on admission policy only — and briefly. Almost fifty years ago, commentators (including Stephen Sugarman and myself) began to emphasize that the core justification and objective of choice was to extend to parents of every economic class the ability cherished by better-off families to decide for their own child. This civic hope depended upon ensuring that this bargaining power of the low-income family was a thing real in the market.

Choice for the Centrist was to secure the chances of the have — not child for admission to all participating schools on terms reasonably similar to luckier families — but doing so cautiously, maintaining the school’s ability to continue its own style and mission.

The school might be asked, for example, to take ten percent of its admissions from welfare families – if so many should apply; or a third of the slots could be decided by lottery. To ensure informed judgment by parents, the school would provide specific information in a public service system. Such rules of the game are, indeed, to temper the utterly free market- if such ever existed. And here, perhaps, is the core of the problem facing the libertarian who perceives the array of schools as just another market to be kept free of regulation. He has supposed that the school problem can be solved by freeing up the seller and simply funding the buyer. But school is not an ordinary game of buy and sell.

To begin, the buyer-parent – though an indirect beneficiary (as is grandmother) – is not the consumer of the purchased good. Nor is the parent even the “agent” of the consumer-child. The parent is, instead, herself literally the government for this occasion; she is law in the very plain sense that she has constitutionally secure authority to impose her own preference upon another person. She makes the law for her subject- you shall attend here and shall obey my agent, the Sunshine School. Yes, there is an exchange of consideration and promises made. School and parent are true contractors in a market; but this is a very distant cousin to the peanut market. The child-consumer may complain but never determine; decision is for the parent only.

And, like the purchaser of peanuts or parasols, the parent needs information — but, here, a good deal more of it. Hence, the system must be structured to encourage and assist the less sophisticated to become reasonably informed. Pure markets assume a canny buyer; but schools are both profoundly opaque to the outsider and quite different, one from another. Hence, to approach the semblance of a market, transparency here needs assistance. Again, however, the school’s professional identity must be respected and protected.

The centrist is by nature a creature of compromise- not of sellout on principle, but of respect for differences of degree. It is suggestive that quite diverse political groups have worked to make Florida an ever-expanding home for choice.