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Education Reform: My Complex Relationship with Simplicity

Education status quo defenders routinely call school choice "simplistic," and they mean it in the bad way.
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"Simple" and "Simplicity" are funny words. They can be used negatively:

Simplicity is a Bad Thing
In Definitions:
Merriam-Webster and say: "Lack of mental acuteness or shrewdness," "a lack of subtlety," "naivete." Synonym: Unsophistication.

In Quotes:
"For every problem there is a solution which is simple, clean and wrong." Henry Louis Mencken, Author.

In Pop Culture:
A song: "He's Simple, He's Dumb, He's the Pilot."

And yet... "Simple" and "Simplicity" can be used positively:

Simplicity is a Good Thing
In Definitions:
Merriam-Webster and say: "Directness of expression," "clarity," "freedom from pretense," Synonyms: candor, directness, honesty.

In Quotes:
"Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication." Leonardo da Vinci, Artist.

In Pop Culture:
A magazine and a PBS TV show portray elegance as Real Simple.

Now, on to the point....

With this as prologue, I now turn back to my knitting (of late), education reform and the promise of school choice. What's the connection? Education status quo defenders routinely call school choice "simplistic," and they mean it in the bad way.

Their bullet points go like this:

The problems of American education are dizzyingly complex. There are issues of absentee parents, bad nutrition, and cultural breakdown. There's an entertainment culture beckoning our kids to hours of videos games, television shows and gross out YouTube videos. Throw in a diminished economy where even some of the best students can't find work after graduation, and you get a whiff of the enormous complexity. Why on earth do these reformers believe that (Insert: school choice, charter schools, vouchers, scholarships) would be some magic pill to cure this swirling array of ills? These fixes are simplistic.

Indeed, for many of these people, the very concept of "complexity" is comforting. They believe the best solutions to social problems strike ornate compromises between a wide variety of stakeholders, each of which need carefully designed provisions to preserve their interests.

If they hear news of a 2,000 page health care bill passed by the House (that most Representatives don't read), they shrug and say, "What's the problem?" If the 9,400 page federal tax code has obvious loopholes, they want to add more pages to plug them. If a 165-page teachers' contract spells out the Monday through Thursday workday as six hours, 57 minutes, and 30 seconds, and the rest of us say, "are you kidding me?" -- they say, "so?"

Running deep in their psyches: "Complexity is for smart people."

What they forget is that all the great causes in American history were based on simple questions. Should slavery be legal, or not? Should women have the right to vote, or not? Should we remove our troops from Vietnam, or not? Of course entire libraries of scholarship can be collected about intricacies of these issues; yes, we're aware of that. The point is that the decisions can all be boiled down to elegantly uncomplicated questions.

Parental school choice, in fact, is a simple concept, and just like movements for abolition, suffrage or withdrawal from Vietnam, its simplicity doesn't make it a bad idea. Of course, you're free to pick the bureaucrats over parents as your answer to the question, but at least you should understand the implications. You'd be telling parents:

Bureaucrats should get to send your kid to whatever school they want. If that school is failing, and you don't have the money to circumvent it, too bad. They should hold the power, and you shouldn't. And if their decisions for kids might be corrupted by an incentive to protect jobs, tough luck. They should get to send your kid anywhere they damn well please because they, not you, know what's best for your own child.

You see, the education reform movement never claimed that school choice would cure all the pedagogical ills overnight. We never denied that larger societal problems make education a tougher job. This kind of assertion, that we're selling a "quick fix," has a name: a straw man. On the contrary, we're actually selling a principle, that bureaucracies will never reform themselves as long as failure has no consequences for the organization.

Case in point: The U.S. Post Office saw no need to track packages until Federal Express did it first. Can't you just imagine the Post Office saying the kinds of things in the 1970s that the teachers' unions say now? "Competition won't bring an end to all lost packages overnight," they'd self-righteously assert, straw men in full deployment. "Plus letting Federal Express deliver packages will drain money away from the Post Office that it needs to improve."

What actually happened? Once Federal Express implemented package tracking -- lo and behold, the Post Office figured out how to do it too.

So, gentle reader, looking backward today, should we have protected our government package shipping monopoly? Would that have made the Post Office better? Or did losing market share drive improvements?

And looking forward, how about that education monopoly? Should it be protected? Even when it fails?

Simple questions, indeed.