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Freedom versus Equality

A longstanding philosophical debate between the freedom of individuals and the equality of groups reappears in the for-profit charter school and voucher movements, where many reformers claim that their new approaches to education can bring about greater equality. Most basically, public schools, which are free and open to all children, provide greater equality of opportunity than a private system of schools that are selected and paid for by parents as a sign of their personal freedom. Additionally, given an overwhelming emphasis on the individual and a weak sense of the social, equality, which is necessarily a social principle, is reduced to a goal that might be achieved through a problematic form of personal choice.

Parents partaking in an education marketplace aimed at individual success and freedom are likely to pay little attention to equality of access or opportunity within the education of their neighbors, thereby potentially deepening many of the conditions of social inequality already faced by some populations. Carnoy explains,

More choice is certainly a desirable goal in education. When parents get to choose a school for their children, they are likely not only to be more ‘satisfied’ but also more committed and involved. Yet, when the ‘market’ has entered into the struggle for equal education, it has mainly been on the side of Whites fleeing integration of majority minority inner-city schools. If anything, private choice has traditionally responded by ignoring or even exacerbating class, racial, and ethnic segregation and inequality.76

Even charter and voucher proponent Moe found “that separatism and possibly even bigotry”77 may be motivating some parents’ educational choices. Finally, EMO critics Wells and Scott discovered in their study of California charter schools that “some charter schools could restrict who learned about them and thus who had access to them,”78 thereby making access a marker of individual privilege rather than a right of all. Perhaps this could explain why studies from across the country have found disproportionate populations in charter schools. A study of EMOs in Arizona found significantly higher percentages of white students and native English speakers than in traditional public schools and nonprofit charter schools in the same areas,79 and a study in New Jersey found that even general, nonprofit charter schools enroll significantly fewer poor children, Hispanics, and Limited English Proficient students.80

Despite all of these disturbing results today, Chubb and Moe proclaimed in their initial call for schools of choice more than two decades ago that

schools will make their own admissions decisions, subject only to nondiscrimination requirements. This is absolutely crucial. Schools must be able to define their own missions and build their own programs in their own ways, and they cannot do this if their student population is thrust on them by outsiders. They must be free to admit as many or as few students as they want, based on whatever criteria they think relevant—intelligence, interest, motivation, behavior, special needs—and they must be free to exercise their own, informal judgments about individual applicants.81

Some EMOs, like the Signal Tree Academy Northeast school proposal of White Hat Management, proclaim “Diversity is an asset”—an intriguing choice of economic terminology.82 However, Chubb and Moe’s founding vision of schools of choice as having a fortunate student body makeup is revealed to be troubling when they say, “The fact is, suburban schools are lucky. They are more likely to be blessed with relatively homogeneous, problem-free environments.”83

Indeed, EMOs appear to make exclusionary decisions. In their now slightly dated study of what they call “market-oriented” and “non-market-oriented” charter schools in Washington, DC., Lacireno-Paquet et al. found that “rather than skimming the cream off the top of the potential student population, market-oriented charter schools may be ‘cropping off’ service to students whose language or special education needs make them more costly to edu- cate.”84 They continue, “While non-market-oriented charter schools are serving equal or higher proportions of needy populations than the traditional public school system, those with more entrepreneurial aspirations are not. The percentage of special education students served is nearly twice as high in nonmarket-oriented charters than in market-oriented ones.”85 EMO schools, then, are ideally and in practice not equally open to all members of a community, nor do they provide equal opportunity to every child, the first marker of functionally public schools.

EMOs are not the only charter schools to practice selective exclusion. Famed nonprofit Success Academy charter school in New York, noted for leading largely poor and racial minority populations to higher test scores, was exposed in the fall of 2015 for intentionally developing “Got to Go” lists of children that they wanted to leave the school. It is alleged that some of these children were targeted with excessive disciplinary procedures and that their parents faced pressures to withdraw their children, while others were systematically excluded from receiving re-enrollment paperwork. This suggests that these schools were neither formally open to all children, nor did they provide an environment hospitable to achieving equal opportunity for all.86

Charter school leaders are often adept at describing themselves at the micro-level in democratic terms as pursuing and enacting freedom, especially when consuming and choice are seen as types of freedom, but they may fall short of also describing democracy as balancing equality alongside individual liberty.87 As described above, EMO endorsers interpret freedom as the individual being freed from bureaucratic oversight to pursue his or her interests as he or she sees fit, primarily through exchange and consumption. Jonathan expounds on conceiving of individual freedom this way:

It is clear at least that when the concept of the citizen as individual consumer is extended to the one social practice which provides the site for the formation of preferences as well as for their satisfaction, this results in a fragmentation of interest and action which denies the public that most basic social good of all: some shared notion of what the good of society consists in. Far from placing us in greater control of our fate, this individualized conception of citizenship simply releases each of us individually to obtain the best deal that we can within circumstances we have ceased to try and optimize together.88

The situation that Jonathan describes here grows into one that is even more alarming, where individuals focus on themselves to such an extent that they fail to recognize their connections to others and to take responsibility for moments when their individual desires may conflict with the needs or wellbeing of others. This, then, is an individual who overlooks (at minimum) or disregards (at worst) the impact of his or her actions on others. Thereby, he or she jeopardizes publicness and the public good as a way of life sought, created, and maintained by educated citizens, because it is necessarily concerned with issues of equity and justice for others.

Not only do such self-serving individuals come to be defined more by what they buy than by what they do, but also their very ability to engage in particular types of action are placed in jeopardy: namely, collective action toward ensuring group well-being or social justice, where that action is not seen to immediately benefit the individual or where it may constrain his or her ability to pursue other desires. Indeed, some individuals are likely to celebrate expansion of their perceived powers as individuals without recognizing that they may be jeopardizing their collective powers, including the very collective powers that may be needed under some forms of corporate management in order to ensure the well-being of individuals.89 It is no surprise that unions, being the most obvious example of collective school power, are forbidden at most EMO and private schools. Additionally, individual “freedom from”—a negative sense of liberty where one is free from interference by others, especially the government—tends to be prioritized over communal conversations regarding collective well-being, or “freedom to”—a positive entitlement that often requires support, protection, or services from the state.90

Finally, as freedom is reduced to consuming, we are less likely to speak up when we are unable to engage in that form of freedom equitably. Brown explains,

As liberty is relocated from political to economic life, it becomes subject to the inherent inequality of the latter and is part of what secures that inequality. The guarantee of equality through the rule of law and participation in popular sovereignty is replaced with a market formulation of winners and losers. Liberty itself is narrowed to market conduct, divested of association with mastering the conditions of life, existential freedom, or securing the rule of the demos.91

Accustomed to differences in income and capital among citizens, we are no longer likely to champion equal freedom and opportunity in political life, but rather are likely to accept inequities in our ability to enact liberty as inevitable. In market rationality, liberty becomes another thing to earn, rather than a right. Certainly, evidence shows that even when seemingly granted choice, restrictions and barriers to using it in empowering ways abound for black working-class and poor parents in particular.92

What we are left with in some of these new forms of public schools, then, is neither a convincing compromise nor a sufficiently justified preference within the classical debate between individual liberty and collective equality. Instead, some practices emphasize individual liberty in ways that jeopardize social equality initiatives and the ability of individuals or groups to pursue them, which is particularly disconcerting when the topic is education, an endeavor traditionally thought to provide not only uplift for individuals but community improvement as well. This surely is also a worrisome conclusion within any school system concerned with ensuring the success of traditionally marginalized groups and also with preparing citizens for a world where equality and collective well-being are admirable values.

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