Going Public in an Era of "Choice"

November 28, 2017
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As we begin to figure out how to go public in this new era of reform, we can take a cue from the national discussion of education.

At her January 2017 confirmation hearing, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos previewed the terms likely to guide the next era of education reform. We can all agree, she insisted in her opening statement, that no single model of schooling, whether public, private, religious, charter, or home, can serve the needs of all students. Likewise, she reasoned, the only way to account for this diversity is to embrace the principles of pluralism and choice—pluralism among educational providers and consumer choice among these providers. But when poor families are denied the range of choices enjoyed by wealthy ones, DeVos argued, education reform becomes “not just an issue of public policy but of national injustice.” In this view, reform’s aim is not so much political as moral with choice repaying our nation’s educational debt to marginalized students and families.

In public discussion, it was the hearing itself that made DeVos infamous. Senator Maggie Hassan’s questions about special education revealed DeVos’s ignorance of federal regulations. Senator Tammy Baldwin’s questions about discrimination against LGBTQIA+ students dramatized DeVos’s refusal to consider the human consequences of “leaving matters to the states.” And of course, Senator Chris Murphy’s questions about guns in schools led to talk of “grizzlies.”

But for literacy educators, I’m guessing, the opening statement represented its own kind of infamy. By positioning choice as the lone mechanism of justice, DeVos returned reform debate to the terms articulated by free-market advocate Milton Freidman. Freidman noted that while teachers’ expertise comes from their profession, the integrity of the teaching profession is secured by the state through certification and licensure requirements. For Freidman, these state regulations granted educators a “perverse monopoly”—perverse because educators were protected from public and political dissatisfaction with their performance, and perverse because professionals’ claims of “expertise” could be used to authorize perpetual growth in public spending on education. Following this line of thinking, Freidman outlined the call of reform that resonates today: only an open marketplace of expertise can serve the public good.

DeVos doesn’t have to say this, although she does invoke “the public school monopoly” often in her public speeches. Instead, she lets Freidman’s rhetorical legacy lay the groundwork for her entrance to the reform scene. All DeVos has to do, as when she addressed the senators gathered for her confirmation hearing, is to redraw associations among the values of pluralism, choice, and justice, and with this deft touch, questions of teaching and learning, expertise, and improvement can be reduced to a yes-or-no judgment. If reform maintains literacy educators’ professional standing, it denigrates parents; if reform dismantles professionalism through choice, it fulfils the moral errand of civil rights.

In this way, DeVos’s appeal is not that different from the one guiding the last era of reform. During the Obama administration, we literacy educators grew accustomed to hearing education reform framed as “the civil rights issue of our time.” By this, reformers usually meant economic civil rights. As former Secretary Arne Duncan put it at his 2009 confirmation hearing, “preparing young people for success in life is not just a moral obligation of society. It’s an economic imperative.” Pivoting from this economic sense of rights, and claiming educators’ failure to deliver economic justice, Duncan goaded the teaching profession toward change. To improve, he argued, the profession would have to loosen its relationship to state regulations like licensure, certification, and tenure protections, and welcome expertise from charters, philanthropic organizations, corporations, and political think-tanks. Similarly, teachers who contributed inadequate “value-added” to students’ educations would have to be removed while professional development would shift to focus exclusively on improving teacher effectiveness. Again, only an open marketplace of expertise can serve the public good.

This appeal rightly concerned (and concerns) us for its power to curtail educators’ professional judgment. As the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE) noted in its 2009 response to the Common Core, standardization-for-competition-for-justice is still standardization, and it still ignores the diversity of our students’ experiences with literacy. But I believe that the appeal we face from DeVos represents an even more fundamental challenge to our profession. Whereas the reformers of 2009 invoked the moral errand of civil rights to dramatize the economic stakes of improving educational outcomes, the reformer of 2017 invokes economic inequity to dramatize the moral stakes of choice. This shift foreshortens the vision of educational reform, making “the civil rights issue of our time” restoring families’ and communities’ moral standing to resist professional judgment upheld by government regulation. Certainly, Duncan’s appeal also served to undermine our moral standing to exercise expert judgment on behalf of our publics: he argued that by graduating students before they were “career- and college-ready,” educators saddled students with an unconscionable debt that could only be repaid by importing market-style accountability to the teaching profession. But all of that kept “choice” off-stage.

Until now. If DeVos’s testimony provides a bookend to the rhetorical style of Obama-era reforms, where is reform heading now and what does this mean for composition's efforts at "going public"? DeVos envisions her appeals to empowerment, pluralism, and choice reorienting the profession toward a rightful reflection of parents’ desires. What those desires might be is unclear—phonics? Prescriptive grammar instruction? A return to the modes of discourse? Machine scoring? Irenic engagement with thorny issues? What does seem clear is that in DeVos’s vision, professional educators would deserve still less of whatever standing they have to make expert judgment on behalf of their diverse publics. Whether the scene is global and competitive, or local and imbricated with mistrust of professionals, “empowering” students and families means changing who provides judgment in education. That’s the line running from Duncan through to DeVos, but with a significant shift in the present moment. Educators’ professional standing is no longer suspect because it ostensibly fails to deliver economic justice and therefore no longer deserves state investment. Rather, it is suspect because educators’ professionalism itself is democratically illegitimate.

So what might we do? If DeVos’s call is for professionals to become ancillary to the people they serve, then one thing we might try is to make DeVossian empowerment ancillary to our publics’ experiences with literacy and literacy education. As I argue in An Alternate Pragmatism for Going Public, we can help our students assess the policies reformers offer as empowerment, and we can circulate accounts of our students’ inquiry in order to sponsor critical public discussions of reform. If such public engagement sounds far-fetched in the Trump era, it is worth noting that public responses to DeVos's speeches and appearances are already serving this sponsoring function. DeVos's confirmation hearing, for example, brought forth something we rarely hear—a broadly-shared appreciation for educators' professional expertise. Likewise, responses to DeVos's speech on special education highlighted not the burdens but the public goods served by federal regulation. Similarly, responses to DeVos's speech at a historically black university affirmed rather than impugned the value of public investment for historically marginalized students. And responses to DeVos's speech at The Harvard Graduate School of Education illustrated public exasperation with (rather than celebration of) market metaphors for educational reform. (DeVos had likened the promise of educational choice to food trucks entering a neighborhood with few restaurants.)

Admittedly, students’ critical inquiry into reform appears to be more difficult now than in the past. During the Obama era, students could recognize the limits of the prevailing reform paradigm—standardization—to reflect their experiences with literacy. I suspect it will be harder for students recognize the limits of “choice,” for what doesn’t choice offer? But if responses to DeVos's speeches offer some indication, the difference between professional and nonprofessional educational judgment is publicly intelligible. As we begin to figure out how to go public in this new era of reform, we can take a cue from the national discussion of education. We can offer our students an opportunity to evaluate the claims being made on their behalf, and we can circulate accounts of our students’ inquiry to sponsor further discussion of reform. While such engagement may not defend our professional standing, I believe it can do something equally valuable: it can begin to restore our publics’ standing in discussions of reform, and this standing can round out the public desires invoked by appeals to “choice.”

Jim Webber is an assistant professor of English at the University of Nevada, Reno, and author of the forthcoming book, An Alternate Pragmatism for Going Public.

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