The Right’s disingenuous propaganda about “choice”

By: - January 26, 2016 3:30 am


Policies in area after area are actually about privilege, division and exclusion

[Note: this post has been updated to repair some broken hyperlinks.] There’s one thing you’ve got to hand to the politicians, pundits and plutocrats driving the modern American conservative movement: They are genuine champs when it comes to “branding” and pasting smiley faces on policies designed to favor the wealthy, while dividing and excluding everyone else.

In area after area, conservative advocates take hoary ideas traceable to creaky and privileged European theorists of bygone centuries and gussy them up with labels like “rights,” “liberty,” “freedom” and “choice.”

Whether the subject is guns, taxes, race relations, environmental and consumer protection or even religion – where efforts to carve out favored treatment for certain brands of religion and sanctify government discrimination in their name are justified as an exercise in “religious freedom” – the talking points are consistent. Never mind that the real world impact of these policies is, almost invariably, a more fearful and divided populace in which “freedom” to make truly meaningful choices is increasingly limited to the rich and powerful.  

School “choice”

This week’s designated topic over which conservative pontificators have been directed to wave the “choice” and “freedom” banners is education. Understandably concerned that many are alarmed by their ongoing move to privatize and re-segregate public schools and transform a common good, public institution into a “free market” commodity, the grand poohbahs of the Right have designated this as “School Choice Week.”

Not surprisingly, the loyal “free market think tanks” are doing their duty. This is from a press release issued yesterday by the John Locke Foundation touting North Carolina’s growing diversion of taxpayer dollars to charter schools and school vouchers:

“As North Carolina nears the 20th anniversary of the law that opened the door to public charter schools in the state, 82,000 students are enrolled now in charter schools. They make up a large chunk of the more than 280,000 N.C. students choosing nontraditional education options.

The John Locke Foundation is highlighting these and other statistics while celebrating National School Choice Week, Jan. 24-30….

‘Whether they’re attending public charter schools, private schools, or homeschools, more and more students in North Carolina have access now to education options that meet their needs better than the traditional district public schools,’ said Dr. Terry Stoops, JLF Director Research and Education Studies (sic). ‘National School Choice Week marks a great time to highlight changes in public policy that will pay dividends for the state, its families, and its kids for years to come.’

‘As I travel across North Carolina, parents, educators, and community members in all parts of their state make it clear to me that they want their children to have the best possible learning experience,’ added Lindalyn Kakadelis, JLF Director of Education Outreach. ‘Increased access to school choice is making it possible for more people to meet that goal.’”

The release goes on to laud the growth in homeschooling and virtual schools and concludes with a call for law and policymakers to “Safeguard the right of parents to educate their children at home by protecting them from intrusive and unnecessary regulatory requirements.”

Untruth in labeling

As even a few moments of reflection reveal, however, all of this talk about “choice” and “rights” and “freedom” in public education is wildly, even laughably, deceptive. So-called “choice” in education has been around for centuries. It’s what we had in the United States before Americans established universal compulsory education laws and built a vibrant network of public schools to make it a reality.

But, of course, what existed in that era of “choice” was not something any sane society would want to re-create. What we had was a hugely stratified non-system in which the rich and powerful sent their children to exclusive schools and tutors and the masses mostly did without or made do with scraps. The same was true for children of color for a century or more after the commitment to public education finally took root.

And try as they might to defend North Carolina’s metastasizing voucher, charter and homeschool networks as somehow sure to lift the state’s schoolchildren to new heights, the evidence points overwhelmingly to the contrary. This fact is borne out by the consistently mediocre performance of non-wealthy students in various voucher, charter and virtual schools throughout the country for decades.

And here in North Carolina, where the privatization push is really just getting up to full speed, the initial results are no less damning. If you doubt this, re-read this news story about the embarrassing lack of accountability in the state’s “opportunity scholarships” program and the abysmal performance of the for-profit corporations placed in charge of the state’s new virtual charter school options.

Or check out this recent op-ed by the leader of one of the state’s most important foundations in which she exposes the absurdity of North Carolina’s recently-enacted A-F grading system for public schools (a system that was supposed to “empower parents” with “choice”).

The simple truth is that public education is not a commodity or a consumer product. It is an indispensable component of a free and healthy society – like clean air and water or a public safety system.

Imagine if we told the people of Flint, Michigan that they are now “free” from the “burdensome regulations” of a failed public water system and have “choice” when it comes to where they get their water. As outrageous as that would be, it’s hard to see how it differs much from the bill of goods school “choice” champions are peddling here.

Choice, huh?

Interestingly and not surprisingly, the Right’s commitment to “choice,”  “freedom” and “liberty” from the “overbearing arm of intrusive government regulation” only goes so far in the public policy debate.

Last Friday, for instance, was the 43rd anniversary of one of the most important court rulings in favor of choice and liberty in American history. Roe v. Wade freed millions of American women from the tyranny of government laws and regulations that forced them to travel to distant cities or seek the approval of a panel of strangers to make the most personal imaginable decision about their own reproductive health. Isn’t it interesting that the Koch-funded groups haven’t weighed in to celebrate that important development in human liberty?

And there’s the world of health care, where a public program (the Affordable Care Act) that gives citizens the freedom from the terror of facing premature death for lack of health insurance has been resisted at every turn by so-called lovers of “choice” and “liberty.” Here in North Carolina, their ideological opposition was so strong that they couldn’t even bring themselves to implement a state-level health insurance exchange (or marketplace) to provide consumers with choice.

And perhaps most outrageously and amusingly, there’s the subject of election law and political gerrymandering. As a laugh-out-loud video from wags at Common Cause North Carolina demonstrated just yesterday (click here to check it out) the very guiding premise of the Right’s ridiculous electoral maps in recent years has been to deny choice to voters. It’s worked too. As noted in this post, voters will have no real choice in well over half of all North Carolina legislative elections this year.

The bottom line:

Try as they might this week to spin North Carolina’s race to privatize its most important common good institution as being about a commitment to “choice” and “freedom,” alert observers will see through these labels. Like their forebears in their musty European drawing rooms, the “choice” these folks have in mind is one that’s only real for a select group of society’s elite. For the rest, it’s mostly a destructive illusion.   

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Rob Schofield
Rob Schofield

Editor Rob Schofield oversees day-to-day newsroom operations, authors regular commentaries, and hosts a weekly radio show/podcast.