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Seeing School Choice Through a New Lens

A reflection from New Jersey mom and education blogger Laura Waters last week was meant to spark re-consideration of school vouchers. For a moment, though, Waters got me thinking more about Calvin and Hobbes than education policy. The sentence that distracted me? This exotic utterance: “In hindsight, I think I was wrong.”

Even to consider other perspectives can be dizzying; changing one’s position on an issue can be downright vertigo-inducing. No text better illustrates that challenge than this Calvin and Hobbes classic:

Calvin & Hobbes

CALVIN AND HOBBES © 1990 Watterson. Reprinted with permission of ANDREWS MCMEEL SYNDICATION. All rights reserved.

Seeing his father’s point of view for a moment doesn’t simply alter Calvin’s perspective on that issue; it makes it seem like everything shifts, intolerably, and can’t be put to rights until he retreats to his original stance. For many of us, a change of mind or heart can feel equally disorienting. For a lot of people I admire—committed to social justice and education—any consideration of vouchers is that disconcerting.

Thus when Waters, the former president of a local public school board, reconsiders her resistance to school vouchers, I’m not just excited for the addition of a possible ally for an approach that I’ve seen benefit children. My hope in human nature is refreshed.

Waters recounts that her family was able to access an appropriate education for one of her children’s exceptional learning needs by having the county pay for him to attend a private school. “My husband and I were able to access a private school for our son using public tax money,” she notes. “How is this not a voucher program?” She also admits that “our binary view of ‘public’ and ‘private’ funding in the education arena is flat-out wrong, a false dichotomy” and names other ways in which most U.S. school systems use public funds to procure private services.

Her willingness to view her own actions through a new lens is as welcome as it is necessary these days—and not just on the issue of how we use public means to achieve the educational ends we want for all children.

The arguments for wide-ranging school choice are many and can be found in detail elsewhere. Milton Friedman, of course, originated the free market argument for educational choice. As Waters notes, former Secretary of Labor Robert Reich has made a progressive case. Pluralism and American Public Education: No One Way to School, by Johns Hopkins University’s Prof. Ashley Berner, explores the case for school choice through the lens of pluralism. Prof. Patrick Wolf and the University of Arkansas Department of Education Reform provide extensive research.

Waters’ shift is less striking for the school of thought her argument aligns with than from her gutsy, personal examination of her own experiences in a new light. If all politics is local, then surely all education policy is a bit personal, and it requires more than just an appeal to logic as a result. There is a reason why we call such transformations a change of heart. I know relatively few people who can be argued into new positions using straight logic—particularly when kids and money are involved.

Like Waters, I warmed to private school vouchers from personal experience—although in my case, it was the experience of being a vice principal, seeing students empowered and transformed before my eyes as participants in D.C.’s Opportunity Scholarship Program.

My personal encounter with private school choice occurred at a time when there was broad bipartisan support for it. To encourage more such wide-ranging support now, it seems we need to cultivate openness as well as arguments.

Catholic tradition speaks to this idea of openness of heart. As Fr. Ronald Rolheiser relates, Christ’s primary call to action in the Gospels—“repent, and believe in the Good News”—suffers from a flawed English translation. Unlike the guilt-driven approach Catholics are probably famous for, the Greek word translated often as “repent” is metanoia: “meta, meaning “above”; and Nous, meaning “mind”. Metanoia invites us to move above our normal instincts, into a bigger mind, into a mind which rises above the proclivity for self-interest and self-protection which so frequently triggers feelings of bitterness, negativity and lack of empathy inside us.” At the heart of our faith is a radical belief in each person’s ability to change.

Of course, Catholics believe you need supernatural help—grace—to make that kind of change. And the call to conversion at the heart of our faith is personal, not political. Yet the New Testament certainly features a story of personal conversion that results in public action: St. Paul, after all, sees the light on the road to Damascus, comes to believe in Christ as the Messiah, and promptly quits persecuting other believers. Maybe nowadays a little metanoia could just start by keeping us all nice on Twitter.

To open ourselves to metanoia doesn’t mean shifting to a relativistic, “anything goes” mentality. Indeed, rootedness in principles can liberate us to explore new ways of living them out. Above all, metanoia is to avoid, as theologian Henri Nouwen explains, paranoia—“a closed fist, by a protective stance, by habitual suspicion and distrust. Paranoia has us feeling that we forever need to protect ourselves from unfairness, that others will hurt us if we show any vulnerability,” as Rolheiser relates.

Waters is clearly more concerned with the yawning chasm of educational inequality in the U.S. than with abstract theology. But for more people to move from “a closed fist” to “a bigger mind,” the change may need to start on a level other than our past policy stances or current partisan affiliations. Walters certainly gives me hope that it is possible—in school choice and in other issues—to say as she does, “Maybe this is the right time to try something new.”

Beth Blaufuss is the Vice President for Strategic Initiatives at Partnership Schools.