The education choice movement must keep our options open

In “The Hunt for Red October,” American officials learn that the Soviet Navy has sailed into the Atlantic with orders to sink one of its own submarines, a nearly undetectable vessel brimming with a huge atomic arsenal.

At an intelligence briefing in Washington, protagonist Jack Ryan briefs American National Security Advisor Jefferey Pelt and a large number of military leaders. When advised of the advanced stealth capabilities of the Red October and the efforts of the Soviet Navy to sink her, military brass quickly jump to the conclusion that they are dealing with a rogue madman and break into a panic.

Ryan, a CIA analyst who had studied the Soviet captain, deduces that it’s possible the captain is attempting to defect to the United States. Pentagon brass entirely dismisses the defection possibility, but the National Security advisor asks Ryan to stay behind following the meeting.

“Listen, I’m a politician, which means I’m a cheat and a liar, and when I’m not kissing babies, I’m stealing their lollipops,” Pelt explains to Ryan in a cunning southern drawl. “But it also means I keep my options open.”

Pelt sends Ryan off to the Atlantic to contact the Red October, just in case.

Why the trip down Cold War memory lane? Controversy over culture war issues in the choice movement brings National Security Advisor Pelt’s sage advice to mind. I’ll explain why.

Choice laws are decided in state legislatures. State legislatures vary widely in terms of partisan control. For decades, the choice movement faced two large challenges. Public opinion polls repeatedly demonstrated strong support for choice among Black and Hispanic parents.

Sadly, the nation’s education unions are far better organized and financed than parents, especially in electioneering. With some delightfully notable exceptions, the electoral salience of K-12 issues has thus far been limited.

Republican lawmakers have provided most of the votes for choice programs. Suburban complacency, however, creates a second major obstacle. The choice movement, both charters and private choice, focused their efforts for decades on urban schools. This made sense; urban schools represent the most toxic academic disasters.

In failing to cultivate constituencies that were both inclusive and diverse (in the dictionary definition of those terms), the choice movement failed to establish the broadest possible coalition. Places like Katy, Texas (a vast Houston area suburb), elect the Republican majority in Texas, but few in Katy necessarily know anyone whose child attends a “charter school.”

A Republican lawmaker from Katy hears continuously from the education unions and gets phone calls from his local superintendents. People seemed generally satisfied with their schools – Why rock the boat? Despite almost two decades of large Republican majorities, no private choice measure has passed in Texas.

COVID-19 had a profound impact on the latter of the two major problems. Suburban complacency is gone. People who took on massive levels of debt to get into the “good” public schools feel more than a little shortchanged right about now. Urban parents are well within their rights to think:

Successful social movements include as many people as possible and work through differences to achieve shared goals. The American public school system is a vast decentralized system of local public monopolies characterized by low voter turnout, elaborate job security and regulatory capture. Attempts to command such a system have a sadly predictable pattern of failure.

The demos of American democracy don’t yet care about any of this: They are in a mood. I’m placing my bet here that years from now, efforts such as curriculum bans and even curricular transparency will have devolved into a quagmire of much rancor but limited utility.

Remember when a bipartisan super-majority of Congress attempted to order the public-school system to read and do grade-level math by 2012?

National Security Advisor Pelt would survey the scene, realize that the same strategy that works in Alabama won’t sell in say, Illinois. He might do something smart like order a subordinate to figure out the percentage of American students who live in blue states. Armed with such information, he would likely advise against mistaking a red state strategy as national strategy.

Pelt would have his own thoughts on masks, shut-downs and curriculum, but he wouldn’t tie himself down. Pelt would keep his options open. And if we are to have a truly inclusive and diverse choice movement, we’d be well-advised to follow his example.