I've listened to the debate about school choice, and, frankly, a lot of the discussion by conservatives misses the point.
It's not that I'm against school choice. I'm not. But it makes me uneasy when conservatives argue the proposition on the grounds they are producing better end results.
Well, not necessarily.
School choice advocates produce reams of data showing how much better a choice education is, while the public school folks offer up competing claims to show it isn't. Too often both sides argue the merits of education based on which schools produce the better test scores or graduation rates. It becomes a cacophony of 'I can do anything you can do better.'
The truth is, if you take a random sampling of schools, you are going to find some superb public schools and some subpar ones. The same goes for choice schools.
Just because public schools are regimented, factory-era industrial institutions doesn't mean they can't educate, if properly run. By the same token, just because some choice schools don't measure up to standards created for overregulated government schools doesn't mean they aren't providing a quality education, redefined for the modern world and modern realities.
As my pappy would say, the truth is likely somewhere in the middle. But, for the sake of argument, even if the pro-union assertion was right, that public schools are better as a rule than choice schools, it's irrelevant. It doesn't matter.
Or, I should say, it only matters if you're a liberal. That's because the only way they can justify holding children hostage in obsolete industrial public institutions is to prove they are better than all other alternatives. They take it a step further, too: Unless you can prove that alternatives are actually better than what they have, then they should not be allowed.
All things being equal, the liberals only want to allow one of the things, the one they conveniently control, as it turns out.
Conservatives, unfortunately, allow themselves to be trapped in this kind of thinking all too often. They try to wage war on the merits of result rather than of principle, and invariably that benefits liberals because the measurements are based on those bygone standards created by the liberals themselves. Just as important, it reduces conservatives to arguing that the ends justify the means, and that's the liberals' home turf.
Ends don't justify means, of course. History has proven time and again that just means lead to just ends eventually, and, in the social world, in the political world, in the economic world, those means involve the free actions of free people: individual liberty, and the freedom to act and choose.
Now it's only human to think the policies you embrace will lead to a better outcome. After all, nobody supports an educational system because they think it will provide a horrible education. And it's not that arguments about good schools and bad ones aren't important; it's that they are only important within the parameters of liberty.
Arguing that choice schools are better than public schools sets up an either/or dichotomy that cannot possibly aid the school-choice movement. The logic should not be, if public schools are better, then we shall have public schools, or vice versa. Those are impossible arguments to win or prove on either side, and so stasis and the status quo are the result.
Instead the logic should be, we shall have choice schools because it is the right thing to do - to give parents rather than the state the right to choose the education they think is best for their families, and to decide for themselves how best to measure the standards of that educational choice.
That can't happen so long as the choice movement is busy arguing test scores. They need to argue instead that the fundamental right to choose your path is in fact the way to innovation through competition and motivation, no matter what the choice is.
That is one of the strengths of our own federalism. The constitution provided for the sovereignty of the various states, save for core functions each could not provide on their own, and within that sovereignty was the right for each state to sail its own way.
What blossomed was a veritable garden of experimentation in public policy. States have become incubators of innovation in so many different arenas, from judicial selection to health care to education and more. States are free to look to other states, to see what has worked and what has not, and then to fashion their own path. The freedom of the states to choose and innovate has strengthened America as a whole.
And so it should be for parents and education. Not only does individual liberty motivate by smashing the government monopoly on schools and unleashing competition - the drive to survive in competition is itself a motivation for better performance - but choice also encourages diversity and innovation, those labs of experimentation and innovation.
That's not to say that every choice is the right one, or that every stab at innovations hits its mark. But over the long run, the dynamic of liberty - the freedom to choose, the freedom to toss what's not working and to keep what is, and to develop new approaches along the way - is bound to produce a better result for all: a stronger nation, stronger schools, a stronger economy.
The left understands this, of course. and that's why they must insist on arbitrary standards, rules and compulsory conditions that impede innovation and progress. That is why they insist on antiquated yardsticks to measure performance, for they know their outdated tools can't quantify the long-term benefits of liberty.
In the end, individual liberty is the only rational philosophy. Conservatives see that people are born as individuals and die as individuals. People try to think for themselves and plot their way through life toward death using their personal creativity, drive, talent and skills.
For the left, that is too unpredictable, and unfair to many. Individuals are born, yes, but they must be shoehorned into the system, stripped of that individuality, and pushed through the regimented system without any choice. In their attempt to be fair to a few, they are unfair to most.
The left simply doesn't like it that we are born as individuals - one reason they keep trying to differentiate personhood from humankind and delaying the onset of said personhood. They want to define away humanity, to collapse it into some artificial and collective personhood devoid of inner spirit and drive and creativity.
What better way to do that than to confine children to government schools?
It's an approach, thankfully, that can never triumph. But the choice movement should not give the left its window of credibility by arguing on its own narrow terms.
Richard Moore is the author of The New Bossism and podcasts daily at www.rmmoore1.com