HB2747 brings out the real controversy in school choice

Eric Shierman_thb

by Eric Shierman

There is another controversy involved in implementing a policy of school choice beyond the school districts’ and their unions’ desire not to compete with each other. It’s the unseemly fact that not all children are created equal. HB2747 brings this controversy to the forefront, because it is a bill intended to largely stop Oregon’s progress toward school choice in its tracks by curbing most of its benefits.

The greatest promise that school choice offers our society is not so much reduced spending on education, indeed given that we already have school choice in higher education where the government’s money follows the student and this money is quite measurably inflating the price of a college education, there is little evidence school choice will lead to much cost savings in K-12 either. The greatest promise of school choice comes from a benefit few policymakers seem to want: the efficient allocation of students based on their ability, interests, and motivation to the schools that will best maximize their very diverse individual potential.

My favorite question to pose to school choice advocates is whether or not they are willing to accept the right of schools to choose too, to pick their students rationally rather than randomly. Like a room full of progressives who all deny the scientific evidence from neurobiology in favor Jean Jacques Rousseau’s tabula rasa philosophy of education that assumes a uniform plasticity of childhood, I’ve found that a collection of conservatives will often shutter at the same suggestion. This was definitely on display when I posed the question to Lisa Graham Keegan when she spoke at the Cascade Policy Institute’s Milton Friedman Dinner last year. She defended the use of lotteries to allocate admission to over applied schools because she concluded to a loud applause from a ballroom filled with many leaders of the Oregon Republican Party: every student deserves the same education.

This quest for sameness in America also comes from a uniquely American philosopher of education, John Dewey. His lasting influence more than any other factor explains why the United States spends more than the rest of the world per student, more than Germany and far more than Finland to achieve such mediocre results, results that are demonstrably behind when measured by the things the rest of the world values in primary education such as literacy, numeracy, and writing skills. If however we could measure American public education by the result Dewey valued above all else, social change, then perhaps our schools have been a great success all along. All American students regardless of socio-economic status definitely lead the world in self-esteem.

John Dewey rejected the vocational nature of the German model of mass public education that so successfully dates back to Wilhelm von Humbolt’s reforms and remains emulated around the world today, especially in northern Europe. Dewey asserted the primary purpose of universal public education is not to train a workforce with skills, but rather to socialize students away from the harmful, traditional values of the students’ parents so that society can progress forward with better, more desirable civic virtues.  A school board meeting in Finland lacks the scorched earth debates their American counterparts have, because the Finns are too busy deciding on the best way to teach computer code writing to teenagers, only a tiny fraction of whom get the liberal arts education that the US Department of Education would recognize as foundational to a high school diploma. While Americans are busy fighting over whether or not Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn should be banned for its racial content, the rest of the world is actually training their workforce. America instead trains students to go to college where most of them who actually do will spend another four years of their life at great expense without attaining any vocational training.

School choice threatens to disrupt all this. Its greatest promise is to give students the education they want rather than one that is being forced upon them through monopoly control of the commanding heights of the K-12 education economy. Most students would prefer a turn-key secondary education that prepares them for a career upon graduation at the age of 18. Few parents and even fewer students want an education that instead focuses on conforming young peoples’ beliefs into some politically correct purpose.

HB2747 seeks to block this disruption that was set in motion by the 2011 legislative session’s passage of HB3681 using the seemingly innocuous language of antidiscrimination. HB2747 seeks to amend Oregon’s new open enrollment law to ban a list of characteristics from consideration by the admitting school district. After a long list of uncontroversial ones such as race and religion, this bill also includes “academic record.”  HB2747 then goes even further to mandate the use of a lottery for selection.

The many school systems of the world that outperform US K-12 education do not do so because of better funding or even having better teachers. They do so primarily by rationally separating students by interest, ability, and motivation, matching their students with schools that can maximize a diverse array of innate potential. They don’t allow their schools to be held back by troublemakers or students that simply cannot keep up. Instead troublemaking and achievement gaps get diverted into woodworking and the many other forms of highly skilled craftsmanship that can attract any student’s passion.

American academic achievement averages are lower primarily because the massive resources we throw into education are so inefficiently focused on our fruitless attempts mold our lower quartile into college material that we have long been holding back our two upper quartiles. We help neither in the process. For every student in Oregon to get the most possible out of the considerable resources we already spend on K-12 education there needs to be room for discrimination on the basis of “academic record.”

HB2747 passed the House yesterday but seven Republicans deserve credit for voting against it: Tim Freeman R-Roseburg of District 2, Vic Gilliam R-Silverton of District 18, Bruce Hanna R-Roseburg of District 7, Wally Hicks R-Grants Pass of District 3, Greg Smith R-Heppner of District 57, Jim Weidner R-Yamhill of District 24, and Gail Whitsett R-Klamath Falls of District 56.

This effort to turn back the clock on education reform in Oregon can be defeated in the Senate if Republicans can stand as a unified block against this bill. They would then only have to pick off two Democratic votes which are much easier to find in the Senate than in the House. Yet I cannot help but notice that in that House vote yesterday, Caddy McKeon D-Coos Bay of District 9 managed to find something better to do than cast a vote for her conservative leaning district. Rather than speculate if a citizen journalist was filming her true whereabouts, let me point out that her predecessor is now a conservative leaning member of the Democratic Senate caucus and thus pocketing Arnie Roblan’s easy no vote is a good place to start since this D from Coos Bay now represents the even more conservative Senate District 5 and he voted for HB3681 in 2011.

Where would the second vote come from? How about from one of the four Democratic Senators (Bates, Burdick, Johnson, and Courtney) who also voted for the open enrollment law in 2011? Heck, we don’t even need them to actually vote; they can just be someplace else during the roll call the way Rep. McKeon was yesterday. There’s got to be some political capital to spend for all that Senate Republican support for the CRC. Will Bruce Starr’s leadership materialize when it matters? Can defeating HB2747 serve as his redemption?

Eric Shierman lives in southwest Portland and is the author of A Brief History of Political Cultural Change. He also writes for the Oregonian’s My Oregon blog.