One of the key components in the overthrow of traditional marriage was the skillful and persistent use of a handful of relatively simple rhetorical strategies by the reformers…
The battle the left conducted against the confirmation of Elizabeth DeVos as President Trump’s Secretary of Education attained a level of toxic bitterness that was both stunning and historic, ending only after an unprecedented intervention by the vice president in a Senate vote on cabinet appointments. Mrs. DeVos’ eventual victory might reassure conservatives who anticipate a reversal of the previous administration’s hostility to school choice initiatives, but her razor-thin margin should leave those who favor greater family control over education with absolutely no illusions: Entrenched interests will wage ferocious war against every step in the right direction.
The establishment’s hysterical response to the specter of greater school choice could tempt conservatives to reflect on some bitter ironies—the fact that the most impassioned defenders of “choice” in the matter of destroying an unborn child, for example, tend to loathe the same principle when it comes to educating those children who manage to survive gestation. Rather than dismissing their opponents on grounds of unprincipled moral pragmatism, however, conservatives may be wise as they battle for educational options to study and deploy some of the successful tactics recently utilized by “progressives.”
Specifically, there is much to be learned from how conservatives lost the fight to preserve traditional marriage. The American left exploited a number of clever rhetorical motifs in the astonishingly successful opinion-shaping blitzkrieg that persuaded what may be a majority of Americans (polls are not entirely conclusive) to accept same-sex marriage as part of our new normal. What might conservatives who favor educational reform glean, to their benefit, from the marriage disaster?
First and foremost, educational reformers need to frame the prospect of change in terms of inclusion, openness, and “redefinition,” rather than permitting their opponents to frame the debate in terms of “replacement” or, even worse, “destruction.” School-choice advocates should constantly reiterate the counter to the establishment’s insistence that educational choice will “destroy” public education with one of the key arguments that progressives used to normalize same-sex marriage: We aren’t destroying anything. We are only redefining what “public education” means, in a way that will embrace, include and support the true diversity of American educational experience.
This was one of the most effective arguments of the opponents of traditional marriage. Conservatives were nearly always wrong-footed and cornered by the progressive insistence that “all love is equal.” But that very argument, mutatis mutandis, applies with greater force and accuracy to one of the key points to be made about school choice: Those who favor school choice seek to destroy nothing, least of all existing schools. We seek only to redefine “public education” in more equal terms, so that the concept includes and extends financial recognition to a range of institutions that are already in existence, just as gay couples existed long before gay marriage acquired any legal existence.
Redefining marriage meant recognizing what was already there (according to the proponents of the change) and giving it public support and recognition. The reform of American education should begin with the proposition that we seek to recognize what is already there—a vast range of alternatives to state-run and union-controlled schools—and simply embrace, include and validate it by acknowledging that there is no legitimate reason to prolong the monopoly status enjoyed by government institutions in the use of tax-generated educational funds.
Reformers seek only to redefine “public education,” so that the term can embrace institutions that are are not directly run by the state. It’s as simple and non-threatening as that.
Second, educational reformers might do well to exploit the fact, one constantly cited by the proponents of gay marriage, that the change we propose, far from being anything revolutionary, only brings America into congruence with established practice in many other liberal, enlightened, progressive democracies. Germany, the Netherlands, Canada—yes, that Canada, the darling du jour of all right-thinking progressives—and many others are already enjoying great educational success by doing what supporters of school choice desire for American education: permitting the use of publicly collected funds by educational institutions other than those run directly by the state.
Current American policy on the use of educational funding, it might be noted in argument, most closely mirrors not that of our democratic fellow states, but rather the practice of the most regressive and inhumane of modern states—the North Koreas and communist Chinas, for example, where alternatives to state-controlled education are nearly non-existent. While this argument should be persuasive with globalist elites in all sectors of American society, it might be expected to have special meaning for those, like Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who have long urged America to break from our legal provincialism and look abroad for enlightened reforms.
Contrasting educational funding policy in America with that in foreign states could also permit school-choice advocates to force the establishment onto the defensive by evoking invidious comparison, just as the proponents of same-sex marriage used allusion to historical bans on interracial marriage: “If you oppose gay marriage,” the argument went, “you’re just like those racists who opposed interracial marriage.” Translated into terms relevant to the school-choice debate, the argument might be: “If you oppose school choice, you’re just like those totalitarians in North Korea who oppose school choice.” Admittedly, it is not sound logic, but few Americans seemed to notice or care about unsound logic during the marriage debate (a failure of the educational system, perhaps?).
A third point made by some of the opponents of traditional marriage was that, by extending the definition of marriage to include a gay community allegedly hungry to enter into conjugal union, America would actually be strengthening the institution of marriage. There was and is no empirical evidence for such a claim—rather the reverse, in fact, since some studies correlate the legalization of same-sex union with an accelerated decline in overall family formation. But never mind that. Advocates of publicly-supported school choice may use the same argument—the change, by expanding the definition of “public” education, will strengthen the institution—and point to actual empirical evidence that supports the claim.
That evidence is, of course, the American higher educational system. American universities that are privately run, even those operated by religious organizations, are already allowed to accept students who use state and federal financial support to subsidize their time at college. This is, obviously, as it should be—tax money should follow the student.
And the results are striking American elementary and secondary education students languish near the bottom in comparisons with students from nations that permit publicly-funded school choice. American universities, on the other hand, are the envy of the world, producing graduates who compare favorably with students from other “developed” nations and attracting a net surplus of students from abroad every year. School choice, in the sense of the use of tax money by institutions not run directly by the state, is already working, with spectacular success, at American universities. Educational reformers can make the claim that same-sex marriage advocates made, but make it on a basis of empirical evidence rather than wishful fantasy: Our proposal has already been shown to strengthen, rather than weaken, the institution in question.
Same-sex marriage appears to have been normalized—something unthinkable as recently as two decades ago, when almost all the leaders of both of America’s major political parties publicly opposed it. That revolution in consciousness happened for many reasons, and it does no service to the truth to try to oversimplify them, but certainly one of the key components in the overthrow of traditional marriage was the skillful and persistent use of a handful of relatively simple rhetorical strategies by the reformers.
School choice has a chance to be normalized as well, despite the nearly unhinged hostility (could we perhaps describe it as a “phobia”?) that the idea evokes in some parts of the establishment. Those conservatives who favor educational reform, who favor greater diversity in the application of state-collected money, currently face an unprecedented, even historic, opportunity, under perhaps the most sympathetic administration and Congress they have enjoyed in decades. Not since the late 1940s, when with the Everson vs. Board of Education case, state-controlled schools began to exert monopolistic control over the disposition of public educational funds, has the alignment of political forces been so promising for the advocates of educational choice.
Careful attention to the successes of the self-styled progressives who have dominated the cultural landscape in recent decades could be crucial to the success of conservatives in capitalizing on this precious opportunity.
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