I don’t know how many people reading this are professional wrestling fans – I'm not one – but I would imagine even people who hate wrestling are familiar with the vaunted “steel cage match,” in which the combatants are not only put in the ring together, but the ring is encased in a cage of steel. Wrestling fans love these things. Why?
This description from WWE Bloodbath: Wrestling's Most Incredible Steel Cage Matches might make it clear:
The steel cage: It's used as a barrier and as a weapon. It keeps the competitors inside and the interference outside. The Steel Cage Match is the most brutal form of confrontation.
So why’s a steel cage match such a big deal? Because without the cage the Hulkster or Rowdy Roddy might choose not to fight. With it, they have no choice.
OK, so what does any of this have to do with public policy, you ask?
Well, yesterday Sara Mead over at The Quick and the Ed wrote about the Khalil Gibran International Academy, a public school focusing on Arabic language and culture that the New York City Department of Education is trying to put in the same building as P.S. 282, a traditional public school. Opposition to the plan has been fierce, with objections ranging from concerns by P.S. 282 parents about losing space and services if they’re forced to share room with Khalil Gibran, to accusations that the academy will be a madrassa.
Here’s the passage in Mead’s post that really troubled me:
The most radical and evangelistic school choice supporters like to argue that choice will reduce social conflict around education because people who want schools to serve different social purposes can send their kids to different schools. But this ignores the fact that the mere existence of certain types of schools is offensive to some people, all the more so if those schools get public funding (and, yes, vouchers or tax expenditures in the form of tax credits are public funding). To the extent that greater choice leads to a greater diversity of educational options, we're going to be seeing more controversy and conflict over these issues--at least in the near term--not less.
Mead’s conclusion makes little sense. For one thing, the history of education, which I lay out in the paper to which Mead links, makes clear that when choice has been allowed to work, it has helped to cool conflict where it has existed, and avoid it where it hasn’t. Government schooling, in contrast, has forced - and continues to force - regular confrontation. Moreover, logic suggests that defusing conflict would be by far the most likely outcome of choice, because with it no one has to fight. Sure, with choice people might fight more about specific schools because there will be a much greater variety of schools in existence, but the overall conflict will greatly decrease. Making this latter point clear is where wrestling comes in.
You see, the difference between education with choice and education without it is like the difference between a regular wrestling ring and a steel cage. With the former, people who have different values, educational goals, etc., might grapple over their differences – in a free society we are, after all, allowed to tell people that we don’t like them or what they are doing – but groups that are at odds with each other can get out of the ring. With the latter, in contrast, there’s no escape. People have to fight.
Of course, how choice is delivered will dictate how high or inflexible the ropes are on the non-cage ring. For instance, a voucher would still force one person to pay for part of another’s educational choices, making it hard for the two to get completely away from each other. A tax credit letting people choose whose education they’d support, however, would offer much more separation.
Unfortunately, Mead uses a situation that involves almost no choice to tar even the freest choice forms, which might explain her irrational conclusion that choice will, at least in the short run, create more conflict than the status quo. The Khalil Gibran Academy is, after all, a public school established by the New York City Department of Education, not a private school. Moreover, the department is trying to jam the academy into the same building as a pre-existing public elementary school. Clearly the problem here is the absence of choice for taxpayers and parents, not too much freedom.
Which brings us back to wrestling. Whenever you find your thinking getting fuzzy about whether school choice will produce less conflict than uniform government schooling, remember the difference between a regular professional wrestling ring and one in a steel cage. With the former, one can always avoid a fight. With the latter, there’s nowhere you can run.