Ep. 385: The Three Languages of School Choice

August 29, 2023

The Three Languages of School Choice is a starting point for the next wave of educational freedom. For education freedom to truly take hold in the United States, the school choice movement must reclaim its politically multilingual roots and adapt them for today’s political age.

In this episode, Mike McShane talks with the paper’s author, John Kristof, as well as with Neal McCluskey, Director of the Center for Educational Freedom at the Cato Institute, and Gerard Robinson, Professor of Practice in Public Policy and Law at the University of Virginia.

Mike McShane: Hello and welcome back to another edition of EdChoice Chats. This is Mike McShane, Director of National Research at EdChoice, and we have got a great podcast for you today. My colleague, John Kristof, is out with a wonderful new paper entitled The Three Languages of School Choice. It is an insightful look at how we talk about school choice, how we agree about school choice, how we disagree about school choice, and ways we can potentially have more productive conversations in the future. Now, normally when we have folks write a paper, we just have that person on by themselves and we talk about it. But I have a treat for you, dear listeners. We will actually be joined today by two wonderful interlocutors: Neal McCluskey, Director of the Center for Educational Freedom at the Cato Institute, and Gerard Robinson, Professor of Practice in Public Policy and Law at the University of Virginia. Two longtime friends of EdChoice, two longtime participants in the school choice movement, who are going to offer their thoughts on John’s paper and what we can sort of do with this information, how we talk about school choice and how we can move forward. Perhaps the best thing that we can do is start, John, could you give us the kind of brief… I know it’s a very long paper. It’s a great paper, but it is a long paper. Could you maybe give us the quick overview of the argument that you make in that, and then we’ll sort of kick off the discussion?

John Kristof: Yeah, absolutely. The core idea or the impetus behind the paper, why I started on it, was something that I’m sure a lot of people in the school choice movement notice, which is we’re in an increasingly polarized political culture, and that’s had some consequences on the school choice movement itself. School choice has a long history of being a bipartisan or certainly, at least, a multi-ideological field, right? The first private school choice program in Milwaukee would not have happened if it wasn’t for bipartisan efforts, if it wasn’t for conservatives and progressives coming together and working on a proposal together and pushing through a proposal together. From the earliest days of school choice policy in the United States, people who disagree about politics agree about school choice, and that’s how it’s happened. And I think I’ve noticed something that a lot of other people have, which is it seems increasingly difficult for a lot of people to think about school choice that way.

So we can look at the same events happening in the education space, and people who agree about school choice will respond to that event very differently, and it’s tough seeing bridges get burned and certainly not new bridges being built. And I worry that even as school choice is picking up so much momentum politically right now, and certainly in legislatures across the country, I worry that the more we struggle to interact with each other and to cooperate with each other and to learn how to work with people who have different political ideologies from us, I worry that we’re kind of putting a ceiling on our potential growth as a movement. And if there’s a ceiling, we’re not really going to be fully transforming education for the benefit of kids and families across the country.

So the idea that I put forth is what I’m calling the Three Languages of School Choice. It is, in some senses, an expansion upon Arnold Kling’s Three Languages of Politics that came out in 2013, that some people listening to this might be familiar with. Basic idea is that there’s a basic structure that all of our political ideologies have, and that’s that we see ourselves in a political story. There’s a story as to why we are where we are as a country, who the heroes are today that can take us from this past or learn from the past and take us toward a better future. We also have villains who are getting in the way of heroes doing that and harming victims, and we need to save the victims from their distress. And different political ideologies have different ideas of who the hero’s villains and victims are.

Kling’s Three Languages of Politics identifies that really well. He argues and basically condenses the progressive ideology as the heroes are those who lift victims out of oppression and villains are those doing the oppression. So we have an oppressor/oppressed axis. He identifies heroes in the conservative ideology as those who will hold or defend moral principles, and villains are those who, kind of, for lack of a better term at the moment, kind of corrupt that idea of happening in society. And libertarians have a liberalized tyrant axis where heroes are those who live freely, want others to do the same or enable others to do the same, and villains are those who use coercion to get their own way. And all three of those are not mutually exclusive in any way, and that’s why we see all of those axes, all of those ideologies, happening within the school choice space.

So what I’m trying to do in the Three Languages of Politics is help people learn about these different languages that we use to talk about school choice with the hope of the more that we are able to understand other people’s languages, we’re able to listen to them on their own terms, we’re more able to understand their intentions behind what they’re saying, and overall we’re just more likely to be familiar with them. The more we’re able to speak each other’s language, and the more other people can speak our language, the less likely we are to be abrasive toward each other at the beginning. It’s a very human thing, when someone doesn’t speak your language, to be a little bit on edge because you don’t really know what’s going on. It’s easy to misunderstand each other. If we become politically multilingual, I think that there’ll be a huge step forward for the school choice movement to continue the momentum that we have going on right now, and continue our heritage of working across aisle and across political ideology.

Mike McShane: So Neal, I think I’ve mentioned on this very podcast I’ve always really admired the way that you engage in public. So if we’re going to be talking about communication about school choice, I always think of the way when you participate in panels or the way you engage in social media, particularly on social media, which appears to be a medium that brings out the worst in everyone. I don’t know if you have some sort of shield that you put on or some super suit where these things don’t apply to you, but you continue to really engage in good faith and not attack straw men, and you really engage in this positive way. And so I think you’re a really interesting person to have talk about effective communication or how we talk to each other and talk past one another. So I’d be sort of interested in your just sort of big picture look at the way we talk about school choice right now.

Obviously, you have your worldview, but maybe not really setting it aside, but just thinking about as you look at social media, as you look at the panels you’re on, the television shows. I think I just saw you were just on TV recently talking about these things. How do you see the state of that communication? I try to avoid catastrophizing like, “It’s the worst it’s ever been,” or utopianizing or whatever it would be, “It’s the best it’s ever been.” You’ve been doing this for a while. How do you see the state of communication around school choice right now?

Neal McCluskey: Yeah, the first thing I’d say is I’m kind of blushing right now from your description of me, so thanks. People who know me especially well may not always think I’m as nice as you make me sound, but that’s good PR and I’ll take it. I think that the key to if not building bridges among different people, at least not burning those bridges and pushing distance that doesn’t need to be between people who disagree, is what John mentioned, the term intentions. I think there’s a tendency, based on what I think is, again, right in this paper, which is we have heroes and villains and those villains differ depending on our own approach: what our first principles are, what we think the role of education or government is. We tend to think people who disagree with us must have evil intentions.

And then there’s a strong tendency, especially in the horrible medium we call social media, which is a lot of things. But where, for instance, Twitter, or now, X, rewards you for zingers that lots of people are like, “Oh, I like that.” It sort of feeds into our lizard brain of, “Hey, that person disagrees with my enemy. They must be evil and I will call them evil.” I think we shouldn’t approach any public policy discussion assuming people that we disagree with have evil motives. What I see in almost every public policy discussion is an assumption and an accusation that the people we disagree with have evil motives, and I see that on all sides. And the reason that that bothers me is because people have done it to me.

Maybe I have thin skin or just easily hurt feelings, but it drives me nuts when somebody says, “Well, okay. You say you want school choice because you want to enable diverse people to get the education that they think is right without having to fight with each other. Well, you say that, but what you really want is something worse. You really just want it so that rich people will have an uneducated populace so that they can make them work in their salt mines or whatever.” And that’s not at all what I want, but there’s this constant movement to, “What they really want is X, no matter what they say.” And so that bothers me personally, and it’s poisonous to any sort of civil discussion. And so I think that the key to having civil discussions and being fair to each other is to assume people have good intentions.

For instance, Jonathan Haidt writes about this. He writes about how different people have values and some weigh them differently, some have more than others they think are important. But they’re almost always trying to do something they think is right, and so we need to engage with each other, saying, “I see what you want to do and I see why you think that’s right. Here’s why I think it’s wrong,” not, “I see that you’re evil, so you just go over there and be quiet or we’ll have to crush you.”

Mike McShane: Now, Gerard, I’m so glad you’re on this call as well because you have this wealth of practical experience. Yes, you’ve been in the research world and others. But whether you are in the advocacy space or as the leader of multiple state departments of education, you were in the actual day-to-day working of education policy, getting laws written and passed and implemented, and then also just overseeing the bureaucracy that runs the state’s schools. Sort of from that perspective of the practice, how does the way that we communicate these policies, the way that we disagree with one another, how does that play out? How does that impact the people every day that are trying to do this work?

Gerard Robinson: Great questions. And good to see you, Mike. Good to see you, Neal. John, first time working with you. I want to say it was a great paper. So to your question, Mike, I got to go back to the idea of having three languages because what it reminds me of is that we have three languages for three generations. Now when I think about the fact that he talked about Milwaukee, when people were marketing the whole idea of a parental choice program in Milwaukee, people were holding up place cards. That’s one generation. And now, you have another generation who’s used to communicating with thumbs who aren’t seeing place cards. In fact, they’re not even going to the Capitol Building to see this. And then you had people in the middle who saw both, and so I think his paper is smart because it’s introducing libertarian and different ideas of who, in fact, are communicating to a generation of people right now who kind of thought, “Wasn’t it always this way?” and it actually wasn’t.

And so from a practical standpoint, I think having three languages will help people walk across space and time. I think that’s important. And also, to understand villain and hero or heroin versus devil or God. They’re really different, and so that kind of stuff’s important. When I think of my world of advocacy and I think about communicating. It was interesting that when you talked about Milwaukee or Cleveland or in DC, and I had a chance to be involved with some of those through the Black Alliance of Educational Options, you really had true Democrats and true Republicans, true conservatives, true liberals, who came to the table and said, “On this issue, we’re going to focus on children, families, and outcomes.” You fast forward to today, it’s tough to get conservatives, Republicans, Democrats, liberals at the same table because the question is, “You are supporting this because you’re trying to basically undo public education,” or, “You’re supporting ESAs. for example, because you really don’t believe in democracy.”

That’s a long way from simply saying, “I think we’re just taking money from public schools.” And so I think this paper is important because we’ve got to change the language, but it also requires us to be courageous in reminding people something that Neal mentioned, just assume that if we’re coming from the right, that we’re not wrong. Just assume that. Just assume we really are trying to help families. But things have really gotten complicated when we move from place cards to thumbs because people can say a lot of things they want with no real consequences. And so I’m glad to see this paper and I’m glad to have a platform to talk across the generations.

Mike McShane: And I think that’s such an interesting insight, and I wonder about the role, obviously, social media played in all of this, of the accelerant of both the anonymity that it grants you and what you were talking about, the reward structure that’s built in: the nastier you are, the more engagement that you get. And you can hide behind it, so it’s like a perfect storm of this. But one of the things I think about is this is the world that we live in. Do we think that there are actually ways to reorient this? Are there ways to like…given this world, this deeply imperfect set of media institutions and others, how do school choice advocates work within that space?

And who knows? I always laugh that if we were having this conversation 15 years ago, maybe it was something like, “Oh, we’ve got this emerging world of MySpace or something,” and it’s like, “Oh, it won’t be here anymore.” And so who knows if Twitter or some new thing is going to come up five years from now and we’ll all be laughing about it. But part of me thinks it’s sort of in the world as we exist. Maybe Neal, I’ll throw to you first, and then Gerard. If you’re advising people, if you’re thinking how people should engage with one another, what is the advice that you would give them?

Neal McCluskey: So if it’s within the school choice community, it’ll be harder work to reach out to Randi Weingarten and the teachers unions or someone like that, but I think all of this actually applies. Again, to me, the key is don’t assume bad intentions. Assume good intentions. Other people have said this, I don’t know the origins of it, but also, always, take on the person you disagree with, take on their best argument. Don’t go to what you think is their worst argument and just drill in on that. So that’s just generally: always assume good intentions and deal with what people think that is good, and you may disagree with how to get there. From what I’ve seen within school choice, especially in the last few years, is a lot of the division, I think I’m seeing within the school choice community, is based on actually other education issues. It’s questions about, “Well, what should your history curriculum be? What should your bathroom policies be?” Things like that. Those are all important, but they are not actually central to school choice.

I always think what’s central to school choice is you’re enabling people who disagree on those things to choose what they think is best and not have to defeat the other side in political combat. So if you want a particular bathroom policy, you ought be able to choose a school that has that. Somebody else ought to be empowered to choose a school that has something different. And I think within school choice, those divisions that are about those other things, we should acknowledge that they exist, but be able to agree and to focus on the need for an education system that is truly pluralistic, that enables everybody to choose what they want. And then if you want to have those discussions as moral debates or something like that outside of school choice, feel free. But we should all be focused on a system that enables those people with different views on other things to get the education that they want.

Mike McShane: Gerard, I was going to say we’re on the couch here. We’re getting advice. What would you say?

Gerard Robinson: One of the great things about John’s paper, again, is the idea that there are three languages, and one of my takeaway is there are three different ways of people hearing the same thing differently based upon their part. So for love languages, I would say one thing we have to do for all three is better utilize the media on our side. So remember when very few people knew of a guy named Cory Booker? And then, there was a movie called Street Fight. It was a documentary and it was about his fight to bring choice to Newark. The number of people I ran into over the years who said, “You know what? I’ve learned about this guy named Cory through this documentary,” which I think was even nominated for an Oscar and didn’t win. But for one segment of people, the language of documentary worked for them.

You then move to Waiting for Superman. People went to the regular theater, saw it. Teachers were like, “I hadn’t thought about it that way,” because it was put in a way that people in the public school structure could hear. Some liked it, some didn’t, but they said, “I could see myself in that movie. And so for that language, it worked well for them. You now have the Abbott [Elementary] that’s on television. So I think we need to continue to use documentaries, popular television, and theater movies to market that idea because there are some people who aren’t going to watch television, but they’ll watch a documentary. So that’s number one.

Number two is a guy who has a Creole mother from Southwest Louisiana. I’m a big believer in using food to bridge gaps. So if someone were to ask me my two cents, I would say, “We should have a video conversation like this, and we can call it Choice and Chew instead of Chat and Chew. We get, let’s say, Robert Enlow and Randi Weingarten, and we give them a bowl of gumbo or whatever they want to eat. And Mike, let’s say we have you as moderator. And people are talking about choice while they’re chewing because there’s something about food. I mean, that just goes across faith-based traditions of getting the people together to say, “If I can dine with you, then maybe I can listen.” So those are just two things that I would do because, again, with the thumb stuff, I’m ordering food. I never have to see the chef. I don’t even have to have a physical menu. But bringing people together to talk, I think, is something that I would recommend.

Mike McShane: That’s great. John, I want to pull you back in for one second here because you’ve been working on this project for a while. And I’m curious, what did you learn during this process as you were writing this, as you got feedback from it, did you change your mind on anything? Did you learn anything new? What did you sort of draw from that experience?

John Kristof: Well, I think the thing that stands out the most is I was doing research on the project and trying to get a better understanding why we are where we are. This might sound trite to say, but I think I realized just how human school choice’s problem is right now, in that there’s nothing new under the sun, right? It just kind of takes on new forms. And as Gerard pointed out, the media have changed. The mediums that we use to communicate, the mediums that we use to push for political change, the mediums that we use to socialize have changed, but we’re still people. But the thing that stands out the most; There was a paper, and you’ll have to look at the paper for the full citation because I just remember his last name is Dimant, D-I-M-A N T, who published a paper actually just earlier this year, so I found this even during my research for the project.

He did something of a lab experiment where he found that across political ideologies, and he had his ways for categorizing people there, everyone wanted to cooperate with other people. Everyone had the desire and the intention of wanting to cooperate in these games that he set up. But there was just this perception that people had that people who voted a different way, or people that believed different things. There’s just this assumption that the players in these games had that people who voted differently or said that they believed something particular would not cooperate with them, and both the other way around. So we assume that other people don’t want to work with us because we believe the wrong thing. And so to protect ourselves from being taken advantage of, the players did not cooperate in the first place.

In other words, because they assumed other people wouldn’t want to cooperate with them, they didn’t want to cooperate with the other person. But if they had an assurance that the other person would cooperate with them, they would have because they want to cooperate. I’m saying the same words over and over again, but feel free to check out that paper and that citation. So I think a lesson there is that I think we all want this to work. I think in a vacuum, we really want to continue the school choice legacy and heritage of cooperating, of reaching across ideology. We just perceive other people to be less cooperative and less willing to work with us. And it’s a classic prisoner’s dilemma problem, right? Someone has to be the first mover and put themselves out there and risk being taken advantage of, or risk a cooperation not working.

And maybe Gerard’s idea of creating more spaces where we’re just sharing time, sharing space, sharing food, and some walls come down and we realize that the other person is actually also human, and also kind of wants the same things that we do, just sees themselves in a different story, maybe those kinds of things are the trick. So yeah, I can go on and on. Again, I’ve been thinking about this for a while. But yeah, people are people, in the wise words of Depeche Mode. And I think the more we remember that, I’m hoping, the easier it’ll be for us to cooperate with each other. And that’s kind of what I’m trying to do. I’m trying to humanize and make accessible ideologies and political narratives that we just don’t inhabit that we’re not familiar with. I think that’ll be a huge first step.

Mike McShane: Well, fantastic. I may close with my host prerogative here. And if I’m offering advice to people, it would be to read widely and well, in the sense that you can sort of organize your social media, such that if you’re a school choice person, you just get school choice information. And in any given day, maybe not that much content is put out. And so if someone writes something that’s mean about school choice or says, I don’t know, “EdChoice is terrible,” or, “Mike McShane is dumb,” or whatever, if that’s the one thing you read that day, it can be, “Oh my goodness. This is horrible. The walls are coming in around me.” But let’s say that’s an op-ed in a newspaper that says “School choice is a bad idea,” or, “People who support school choice are terrible.” But you read the whole newspaper and you realize there’s a war in Ukraine, and there were fires in Hawaii, and there was some scientific discovery in Switzerland or whatever was happening, and then there’s this debate happening at the same time. And you see that context in all of it. You go, “Oh, yeah. We live in a democracy. We’re debating things. We’re discussing things. It’s a big, complicated world.” And if you spend time reading, people who agree with you and people who disagree with you, some of those hackles can get a little bit less and say, “Yeah. This is what we do. We talk. We discuss. We disagree. It’s cool. It’s all right. Sometimes it gets a little heated, and that’s okay too. We got to set some borders around what’s acceptable behavior, but as long as it’s within the 40 yard lines, yeah, that’s okay.” And I think the more people read history, it’s, “Oh, wow. Turns out we’ve been debating how we should educate kids and what the American school system should look like since before America was America.”

When we see ourselves as part of this broader, longer tradition, and we see ourselves as one of many discussions that are happening amongst many fields in many areas, maybe it gives us that little dose of humility that helps us take ourselves a little bit less seriously and take our opponents in the broader context of them as human beings or whatever, and maybe meet in the middle and have a bit more productive conversation. Maybe that will work. Maybe it wouldn’t. That was my soapbox at the end.

Neal, Gerard, John, it was wonderful having you on the podcast today. Thank you so much for joining us. As always, I’d like to thank our podcast producers: our dynamic duo, now, of Jacob Vinson and Eve Elliott. Thank you so much for editing this and making it sound together. And anyone who’s interested in finding out more about EdChoice, check us out on social media, after we were just talking about how horrible social media is. But we’re good! You want to follow us and obviously follow Neal and Gerard and John. You can find them easily on social media as well. And as always, I look forward to chatting with all of you again on the next edition of EdChoice Chats.