Commentary

Semantics and School Choice

By Casey J. Lartigue Jr.
November 7, 2000
Television ads sponsored by opponents of Proposition 38 in California have blasted “voucher schools,” as have the leaders of the teachers’ unions, several education professors, and the president of the State Board of Education in Michigan, which also has a school choice initiative on the ballot today.

Of course, there is no such thing as a “voucher school.” There are some public and private schools that accept students with vouchers, but calling those schools “voucher schools” is as accurate as calling Harvard a “Pell Grant school” or a “G.I. Bill school” because some students with those grants have attended. The battalions opposing school choice wish to convince us of the fraudulent idea that choice undermines public schools by transferring their funding to “voucher schools.”

In their zeal to defend the public school system, voucher opponents are engaging in “semantic infiltration.” That process, first identified by American diplomat Fred Charles Ikle during the Cold War and popularized by Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, is successful when your ideological opponents start debating with your terms.

Semantic infiltration was born of the Cold War for a reason — the Soviet Union clearly understood its importance in diplomacy. Joseph Stalin and his propagandists concocted terms such as “people’s democracies,” “wars of national liberation,” “liberation movements,” and “people’s republics.” People aren’t free and can’t vote under communist regimes, but “people’s democracies” and “people’s republics” sound nice, even noble.

Ikle and Moynihan were describing the Cold War, but semantic infiltration is used for a host of bipartisan causes. If you’re hawking a policy, then children, education and “working people” are perfect semantic shields. My nominee for the group with the best semantic shield: the National Education Association.

Who can be against a group with education in its name? “Big Education” just doesn’t have the same sinister ring to it that “Big Oil” does. To counter the NEA’s semantic infiltration, perhaps it could be renamed the Teacher Protection Association (TPA).

In some cases a word is so attractive that the other side attempts to claim it, such as the word “choice.” One interesting example is “controlled choice,” which refers to the policy that allows parents to choose which school their child will attend in a given district — unless that choice is vetoed because of concerns over the district’s racial composition. “Controlled choice” certainly sounds like an oxymoron. What’s next, “forced freedom”?

The objective of this type of phrasemaking is to generate politically effective obfuscation. Opponents of vouchers argue that there will be “creaming” if students are allowed to escape lousy schools. Research has refuted the charge that only the top students will leave public schools — instead, it is desperate students who tend to flee to voucher programs and charter schools. Yet the term “creaming” has been effective. Who in society wants an education reform that only helps the affluent? Of course, another view of creaming is that parents are trying to get their children into classrooms with other children who want to learn. It is difficult to fit that on a bumper sticker, however.

The jockeying to label one another’s ideas shouldn’t be surprising. But it is problematic when groups start using terms chosen by their opponents, without even realizing it. In some cases they’ll try to hold out — first putting the phrase in quotation marks, possibly later with “so-called” in front, then, eventually, complete capitulation. In some cases they don’t even realize they’ve been suckered.

Defenders of school choice should remain on their guard against allowing the terms of the debate to be turned inside out. Many of the same people who support the status quo in education even refer to themselves these days as “reformers.” The creation of a phony term like “voucher school” is meant to muddy, not clarify, the debate.

Casey Lartigue Jr. is a staff writer at the Cato Institute.