If it were up to me, I’d allow genuine local control over educational policy. There’s no reason that schools in Iowa City should have to follow the same approach as schools in, say, rural Texas, or even schools in more conservative parts of Iowa. Why not let each community do it in its own way? Wouldn’t more people be satisfied that way?
But this idea raises one of the age-old tensions in law and politics. To get more freedom for myself, I have to grant more freedom to other people. Many people in Iowa City might dislike the choices made by that Texas town, and want to put a stop to them. But you can’t have it both ways. Is it more important to preserve our community’s freedom to run its schools as it chooses, or to stop that Texas town from doing its own thing? Remember, if everything is decided at the federal level, it might end up that the Texans are the ones telling Iowa City what to do, not the other way around. Arguably, that is exactly what has happened, and I’m thinking of one Texan in particular.
So you would think that I’d be drawn to the idea of school choice, and at least in theory, I am. But school choice is complicated by yet another issue: we’re making choices about what to do with a completely disenfranchised set of people -- children -- who have no choice in the matter at all. Suppose our district starts up the Corporal Punishment Magnet School, filled entirely by kids whose parents choose it. No one would be forcing me to choose it, so could I object? I think I could.
So even in theory, it’s hard not to have some ambivalence about school choice. Then you see what passes for school choice in practice, and ambivalence turns to skepticism and suspicion. Though some people are making valiant efforts to create charter schools that follow humane educational principles, they can’t escape the law’s requirement that all schools are ultimately judged solely on their success in raising standardized test scores. The kind of choice I’d like to make is simply not allowed.
Meanwhile, though, consider some of the choices that are allowed. When our current Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan, was the head of the Chicago school system, he “oversaw the controversial move to bring full-fledged military academies to the Windy City.” Andy Kroll reports:
Today, Chicago has six military high schools run by a branch of the armed services. Six smaller military academies share buildings with existing high schools. Nearly three dozen JROTC programs exist in regular high schools, where students attend a daily JROTC class and wear uniforms to school one day a week. And at the middle school level, there is a JROTC program for sixth, seventh- and eighth-graders.Meanwhile, former Defense Secretary William Cohen is reported to have called JROTC “one of the best recruiting services that we could have.”
Chicago may have the nation’s biggest JROTC program, but it is no longer an anomaly. Due to increases in federal funding for JROTC programs, the military’s presence in public schools is greater than ever before. More than a dozen academies partly funded by the Department of Defense have sprouted up from Philadelphia to Oakland, and the National Defense Authorization Act of 2009 passed last year will increase the number of JROTC units nationwide from 3,400 to 3,700 by 2020, at a cost of $170 million. (Peacework magazine obtained a list of schools that have requested JROTC programs.) The Marines are in discussions to open new JROTC academies in Atlanta, Las Vegas, and New Orleans, helping to expand a program that critics contend has blurred the line between education and recruitment. . . .
Now that Duncan is the nation’s top education official, anti-recruitment activists worry that he will use his position to promote the expansion of JROTC and military academies as solutions for cash-strapped or underperforming school districts. . . . “These are positive learning environments,” Duncan said in 2007. “I love the sense of leadership. I love the sense of discipline.”
Can a pluralist object?