The Progressive Case Against Public Schools, or, What Bleeding Heart Libertarians Should Say

I’m not a libertarian, but some of my good friends are and I tend to think that there are lots of really promising areas of agreement with libertarians. The blog Bleeding Heart Libertarians was founded with just that goal in mind: to find the points of agreement between libertarian and progressive goals, and indeed (in my view) to argue for the superiority of libertarian perspectives for addressing some matters of mutual concern.

I often associate this libertarian caution at state over-reach to address the demands of social justice with F. A. Hayek but it’s a broad and puissant tradition in the literature. Basically, it’s entailed by the reality of unintended consequences and the perils of public choice: we don’t always fully know how our efforts will bear fruit and we do know that interested parties are often maneuvering to turn those efforts to their own advantage.

by Matt BorsAn example of a potentially promising direction for BHL is this recent Andrew Cohen post on abolishing state administration of schools. Though public schooling is a progressive shibboleth, I happen to think that that makes it a prime target for ideologically-blinkered reasoning by progressives: John Dewey’s vision of the public school is a far cry from what we’ve actually created (and indeed public schooling has long been a space of indoctrination and the active production of inequality) but through the miracle of equivocation we defend it all the same. Yet Cohen proceeds as if the case of public schooling is insufficiently strong according to his somewhat tendentious definition of the justifications for state action as a remedy for harms. But this seems to take up the weaker argument and ignore the stronger one!

Here’s the kind of argument I’d like to see from BHL:

  • Progressives should recognize that the ideals of public school and the realities are widely divergent. For example, many public schools play a role in the school-to-prison pipeline and other direct harms against–especially–African-Americans. (One can spin many other detailed and nuanced stories of this kind that highlight the harms to the least advantaged, the way some educational experiences actively dissuade intellectual curiosity, encourage students to think of themselves as incapable, or extend state coercion into families but only when those families are poor or non-white, etc.)
  • Public schooling produces much of the real inequality we experience in the world through the production of metrics for merit. Despite the fact that some propagandists for public schooling argued that it would act as a democratic leveler, this claim has been completely disproven by subsequent events.
  • Public schooling supplies an opportunity for the state to directly and actively interfere with children in politically motivated ways, as evidenced by the textbook controversies that come from Texas among many other examples.
  • Whites and the upper-middle class benefit disproportionately from subsidies and school boundary plans that directly and actively exclude non-whites and poor students. The evidence in many cities (including mine) is that private schools are better racially integrated than public ones, both demographically and socially. The evidence here is mixed, though, and worth teasing out: many private schooling options were explicitly designed to perpetuate segregation.
  • Yet even whites recognize that the latest efforts to test and measure the efficacy of public schools have further perverted the actual educational efforts to which schools are supposed to be devoted. Increasingly, schooling is designed to make testable pupils rather than democratic citizens.
  • There is a clear alternative: state management can be abolished while preserving (and indeed equalizing) state funding. From a libertarian’s perspective this may be second-best to purely privatized schooling, but let’s remember those public choice problems, eh?

Now, of course it may be that a well-informed libertarian (and progressives!) would have objections to some of these points. But it seems like the difference between “only remedy harms” and “first, do no harm” is one that should always favor the latter, and I can’t understand why a libertarian would choose the narrower path. I take it that we see this kind of approach in Radley Balko’s work and there’s been much more demand for it as Balko’s case comes to look a lot like those of Black activists and organizers: that’s precisely the kind of coalition I imagined BHL would champion. Of course, as an outsider to BHL it may be that I’m simply not understanding the internal motivations for this particular approach, which seems born of the kind of political philosophy that tries to exclude public choice considerations and empirical data and do its work through deliberately abstruse thought experiments. But I’d argue that both libertarians and progressives should move away from such arguments whenever other opportunities are present.

3 thoughts on “The Progressive Case Against Public Schools, or, What Bleeding Heart Libertarians Should Say”

  1. My only quibble is assuming that the piece in question is representative of everyone’s views at BHL or libertarians broadly. My unscientific impression is that most would agree with you. State funding, not management and in general for the very same reasons mentioned.

    1. Hmmm. I do think that the piece is representative of the new house style at BHL: as Jacob Levy pointed out on Facebook, he’s the only one trained as a political scientist and he’s been busy. I wouldn’t try to represent libertarians broadly, but I’d guess most aren’t actually enamored of this way of doing political philosophy through stylized though experiments and so I apologize if I gave the impression that this is typical for the movement. (I take it most libertarians are motivated primarily by the problem of political authority and the desire to maximize liberty, not a particular method of analysis. In many ways facts and concrete stories are more laudatory to markets and classical liberalism than the infinitely iterating Rawls/Nozick debate.)

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