How the media talk about education reform

How the media talk about education reform

“School choice,” and the rhetoric behind it, explained.

March 10th, 2022 at 3:42 pm EDT

This past December, student Editor-in-Chief of the Harvard Journal of Law & Public Policy Eli Nachmany, published a guest opinion piece for Fox News, “Education freedom is a political winner in 2022 — Time to give parents school choice.” His self-evident descriptions of school-choice policy characterize opponents’ arguments as nonsensical and illogical on arrival, a hallmark of incredulity-heavy, Republican posturing.

Nachmany almost flippantly references the “obvious popularity” of school choice, noting, he says, that these “policy preferences cut across ideological lines.” He claims in an absolute that “parents can all still agree on wanting what is best for their children,” equating strong parenting with school choice and bulldozing parent readers. “Put simply,” he writes, “parents want education freedom.”

Missing from Nachmany’s arguments, however, are detailed explanations of what effects school-choice policies have had on Americans in the past, and what effects resurrected policy would specifically have now. Through the fog of vague legalese billowing around the zombie Congressional bills, Nachmany never accurately defines “school choice,” only once making an attempt that reads more like a goal than a definition: he writes, school choice is “the ability for a parent to send his or her child to a better school up the road, whether private, religious or public charter.”

American audiences from any side of the spectrum, all susceptible to rhetoric about freedom, would have to be able to sense incomplete arguments to navigate through the fervent dust Nachmany kicks up. More often than not, the approach to equate obvious, effective parenting with something so simple as “choice” likely works on otherwise vigilant, tired parents looking for shortcuts. 

Common in conservative education policy is this concept of “choice.” Enacted, red legislation would see that public schools would receive less or no funding — through a combination of slashed budgets and redirected private contributions — and instead, families of school-age children would all receive identical vouchers, like “school gift certificates.” Private and charter schools would accept the gift certificates, billing from there the federal government for actual cash — but they’d accept cash from families, too, taking advantage of their freedom to set any price. Families with more money would exercise significantly greater choice in which school they select than others, to the point that those with less would regularly have no choice at all, sending latchkey kids to where else but the school in their own neighborhood.

Journalists on the right may amplify the positive connotations of the term “school choice” itself, bandwagoning when describing how sensical it is to favor policies of “choice.” Journalists on the left instead offer empathic, people-oriented rhetoric focused on not the intended, but the likely effects of school choice, dipping into the well of history to discuss the rampant segregation deregulated schooling once created. 

Jeremy Mohler, Communications Director for the In the Public Interest research center, published a rebuke to right-wing education rhetoric in “‘School choice’ is a dog whistle for resegregation.”

To cast doubt quickly, Mohler belittles the term itself, sarcastically tagging it “so-called ‘school choice.’” Given the self-replicating positivity of the term, Mohlers’s early and digestible preview of the argument to come opens pathways otherwise closed given how likely literally all mammals perceive “choice” itself as not only positive, but vital to life.

Mohler then focuses on the effect Republican school-choice policy had in the past and would have now, calling it clearly “the resegregation of public schools.” Notably absent are Nachmany’s big, obvious goals, which, given the catastrophe Mohler foresees, Mohler ignores in favor of immediate reality. To disturb readers on both sides of the aisle — most of whom would of course want to see whatever’s best for America’s children, their parents’ risky choices notwithstanding — Mohler quotes a literal historian, Steve Suitts, who easily linked school-choice policy to the widely published words of “the racist segregationists of the mid-twentieth century.” Making an appearance in the reference is famous racist Alabama Governor George Wallace, who once literally stood blocking the University of Alabama entrance from black students. Suitts, and by extension Mohler, remind us that Wallace favorably spoke, in his words, of “freedom of choice” in schools, such that white families may move their children to white-only schools — their “choice,” the perennial virtue.

For a policy-weary and whiplashed political America, Mohler’s discussion of history characterizes clearly modern school-choice policy as a short-sighted regression that ignores how poorly these policies work out for the average American. Disapprovingly, Mohler speaks of Republicans’ charged rhetoric as “right out of the 1950s.” Mohler, like Nachmany, also employs bandwagon tones of how “obvious” conclusions on school choice should be: “We shouldn’t have to be fighting these same old battles in 2021,” Mohler writes, “But here we are.” His ingroup appeals signal progressives: While the right looks back to make America now look like it did “again,” the left tends to be at once optimistic and futuristic — “progress” being the root of “progressive.” It’s axiomatic, then, for leftists to look at history of the kind Mohler describes so blatantly, and think, “We can do better.”

Though Mohler attempts a wider pass in his review of the issues, spanning two centuries, it’s Nachmany’s piece that’s likely the more effective. Nachmany’s confident tone allows his simplified and single-moment definitions of Republican education policy to appear so obviously accurate that intellectualizing progressives begin to look like a hoard of unfocused, stained-blue sheep in need of red dogs to corral them. Moreover, asking Americans to explain what “school choice” policy entails is a late-night sketch, a compilation no doubt of failed attempts to make sense of a vague term that appears considerate and inspiring. A blog like Mohler’s stands little chance in that environment when up against Nachman, who either knowingly exploits his uninformed audience, or accidentally does so having himself fallen to the fallacies of strawmen: false definitions that simplify sides and language until the choice is a grain of salt compared to the spoonful of the full idea. 

Ryan Derenberger is a freelance journalist and editor, a Journalism and AP Language teacher at Whitman HS in Bethesda, MD, and the founder of 'The Idea Sift.' He also serves on the board of directors for student journalism nonprofit 'Kidizenship.'