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Curmudgucation: Would Legalizing Discrimination Improve Education

Corey DeAngelis is one of the young choice bros, working for the DeVos American Federation for Children, CATO, Reason, Education Freedom Institute, etc etc. And while I can remember a time when one could have a civil Twitter exchange with him, nowadays he's followed by a fairly aggressive Twitter swarm. But he's one of the young guns in the privatizing world, a mover and shaker and "choice evangelist" that has been there to boost every piece of privatizing legislation of the past couple of years, so it's worth taking a look at some of his earlier pieces of work to get insights into his thinking. 

So we head back to 2016 and the Foundation for Economic Education, a libertarian thinky tank founded in 1946; they cut their teeth on opposition to New Deal stuff. In 2016, their chief was Lawrence Reed, who had previously run the right-tilted Mackinac Center and was also a senior fellow at the Heritage Foundation.

The DeAngelis piece has a catchy title-- Legalizing Discrimination Would Improve the Education System-- and a thesis that Milton Friedman, the granddaddy of the Let's Just Get Rid Of Public Schools movement, would appreciate. 

Friedman's view on segregation and vouchers has been debated. Friedman was anti-segregation, and also anti-forced desegregation. His championing of school vouchers came along at just the right time for folks who were looking for ways to avoid the results of Brown v. Boardwhether that was just a remarkable coincidence or Friedman taking advantage of culture wars to promote an anti-public ed policy depends on how much credit you want to give the man. 

Likewise, Friedman either argued that A) school vouchers would inevitably lead to more segregation or B) school vouchers would lead to more integration, or possibly C) he didn't really care one way or the other. Your choice will depend on A) what pieces of stuff you read and B) how important it is to you to preserve his standing as a sainted father of rational and objectively true belief in a Free Market that should be Ruling Society. 

If he was using culture war panic over segregation to feed a privatization agenda, he certainly wouldn't be the last.

At any rate, DeAngelis offers a more civilian-accessible version of how the voucher system could be expected to weed out Bad Discrimination. 

We can all agree that the intentions behind this policy are well-meaning. We don’t want public funding to go to schools that are run by malevolent people. For simplicity, let’s assume that people running private schools are indeed racist, sexist, evil individuals. Even if we allow all types of discrimination, the evil individuals in charge of the private schools will financially pay for the act.

For example, let’s assume that the people in charge of school X are racist. They can choose to hire a teacher of race 1 or race 2. If they are racist against race 2, they will likely choose to hire race 1, regardless of the actual quality of the teacher. If an alternative school, Y, does not practice the same discrimination, they will benefit by having a larger pool of teacher candidates. Ultimately, this would lead to a competitive advantage for school Y for not being racist! Families would recognize this advantage, choose school Y, and force school X to face a shutdown condition. Allowing families to choose their schools will only work to eliminate unhealthy discrimination such as racism in hiring.

It would be generous to call this idea ahistorical. The post-Brown landscape, complete with segregation academies and racially gerrymandered districts, provides ample evidence that there is a robust market for racist schools. Furthermore, the current landscape provides ample evidence that there is a robust market for schools that discriminate on the basis of religion or LGBTQ status.

But DeAngelis is going to say "Bad discrimination will be quelched by the market" and move on.

Then he shifts to examples of "healthy discrimination." He offers basically two types.

First is what we might call "magnet school" discrimination. If you're setting up a school for the performing arts, it would not be healthy to force the school to accept students and faculty who have no background in the performing arts. He uses a sports school example along the same lines.

Second is "ability level and learning styles" discrimination. If we accept students with low achievement levels just because they are athletes, that would be hard on top academic students and teachers. 

This "healthy discrimination" is also to be done away with, leaving students to just crash on the rocks and, as he admits, "hurt their confidence level."

But behind his distinction between healthy and unhealthy, there are other distinctions. Like the distinction between discrimination based on relevant factors (like background in the material the school teaches) and discrimination based on irrelevant factors (race, religion or sexual orientation of the student). 

Or instead of "healthy" and "unhealthy" we could say "legal" and "illegal." "Not a performing artist" is not a protected class. "Not in the top percentile of academic achievement" is not a marginalized group. But DeAngelis, like Friedman, wants government out of the whole thing.

Although there are certain types of unhealthy discrimination, it is not optimal for bureaucrats to determine which types are permissible for the rest of society. Instead, we should allow families in society to choose the schools that do not partake in the discriminatory practices that they deem to be non-permissible.

And here we are, back at the same old problems. First, there's the libertarian paradox--if we allow people the freedom of choice to discriminate as they wish, that automatically robs other people of their freedom to choose. Second, if a bunch of people choose poorly, all of us suffer (including losing our freedom to choose). Society has a vested interest in limiting the spread of racism and ignorance, not just because those are morally and ethically bad, but because they make society work worse. Unhealthy discrimination is unhealthy for society as a whole.

In all fairness, it's not just a libertarian problem. It's also a democracy problem; freedom to have your voice is great and necessary, but when you use that voice to promote damaging vile stuff, we have a problem. Plenty of districts have managed to implement and maintain discrimination using democratic processes.

But as hard as the problem is to wrestle with, "Just let the free market sort it out" is not a solution. To be clear, legalizing discrimination would not improve education--it would (as it always does) provide cover for bigotry and unhealthy discrimination, thereby making education so much worse for people who get the short end of the stick.

And I'm not sure that DeAngelis and Friedman actually think the free market really will solve segregation, so much as they think the free market should be the primary value driving policy, and if that results in segregation and inequity, oh well, that's just the price of Freedom. 


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Peter Greene

Peter Greene has been a high school English teacher in Northwest Pennsylvania for over 30 years. He blogs at Curmudgucation. ...