In the classic Charles Dickens novel Bleak House, the reader meets a woman named Mrs. Jellyby. Mrs. Jellyby has an ordinary family, but no time for them at all. This woman has her eyes fixed on something more important.
Her real calling, she feels certain, is overseas charity work. She opines constantly about the tragic conditions in Africa. She throws herself into dubious missionary efforts that are both offensively paternalistic and completely ineffective.
The question of real-world impact hardly seems to cross Mrs. Jellyby’s mind. She derives so much purpose and pleasure from the act of meaning well that actually doing good appears irrelevant. The suffering of others is chiefly a means to self-satisfaction, not a problem to solve.
And she is blind to the pain her fixation causes. Her neglected husband is miserable. Her children run wild. Her home is a disaster. But the matriarch ignores her family’s struggles. Who has time for such worries? There are foreigners to pretend to save!
Dickens heaps scorn on this character’s crazy priorities. The reader is meant to laugh at her disinterest in the efficacy of her work and her inattention to her family.
Updating the parody
What if Dickens were rewriting this story today? The object of Mrs. Jellyby’s concern would need to change. Christianizing Africa is hardly the trendy topic du jour. He’d need another subject on which a self-appointed social justice crusader would feign expertise. Let’s say he picks public education.
How would modern Mrs. Jellyby approach American schools? We can be sure of two things. First, her own sense of self-righteousness would get priority over actual results. And second, her duties to her own family would take a backseat to her grand plans for society.
In short, a comedic case study in how not to help people would look exactly like this op-ed from the New York Times.
Professor Gautney starts by claiming that school choice exacerbates inequality. She backs up this allegation with one study that looks at the racial makeup of schools in New York. The report doesn’t cite a single student outcome. Its sole concern is old-school ethnic arithmetic.
If you were genuinely interested in how education policy affects children, you would not hang your hat on one study of a second-order issue. There is a vast scholarly literature on the direct impact of school choice on actual student outcomes. The bulk of it is quite encouraging.
Take, for example, a recent report from Mathematica Policy Research, a well-respected nonpartisan outfit. I have written about this study before. I plan to keep writing about it. It is that interesting and important.
This report is unique because the scholars kept collecting data long after most studies lose interest. As a result, their data set tracks students past their high school graduations, all through their college years, and even into their early careers.
The results? Compared to virtually identical students who attended traditional high schools, charter students in Chicago and Florida were about 10 percent more likely to enroll in college. The Florida kids also had a 13 percent edge in sticking with college once enrolled. And by their mid-twenties, the Florida kids were earning more than $2,000 more per year on average than their non-charter peers.
These findings might not move Professor Gautney. After all, her core complaint is not that school choice never helps, but rather that its benefits are not available to all. But stop and think about what a crazy reason this is to oppose further reform. By this logic, we ought to have destroyed the first penicillin factory for exacerbating health inequality. After all, it was only producing a few dosages per day!
This is not an informed argument about policy. It is an unfalsifiable distaste for free markets in search of a justification. When novel innovations are proving helpful but touching too few lives, you don’t squelch them. You scale them up.
And when your political movement is the major obstacle to the expansion of school choice, you do not get to indict the policy for being insufficiently widespread.
School choice is not antisocial
Gautney’s op-ed also argues that school choice is an affront to social solidarity. Having the opportunity to airlift your children out of failing schools makes you privileged, and privileged people shouldn’t compound their privilege by doing things like airlifting their children out of failing schools.
See how this works? If school choice is an option for you, you axiomatically lack the moral standing to exercise it. The professor calls this paradox a “no-win ethical dilemma.” Heads you’re a sub-optimal parent, tails you’re Marie Antoinette:
Do we personally invest in our public schools by sending our kids to them, even if that means walking through metal detectors to get to class, coping with high teacher turnover, and having only limited access to academic and extracurricular resources? Or should we provide the best opportunities our privilege can buy, at the expense of things like diversity and social justice that we all claim to value?
So families who escape failing schools are culpable for the system’s dysfunction. Pulling your children off the sinking ship offends social justice. Better to throw them back on board and tell them to grab a bucket.
This is problematic on two levels. First, despite all the claims that charters seal public schools’ doom by skimming away the top students, there is no factual reason to believe that this happens. The best scholarship on this comes from Ron Zimmer, currently of Vanderbilt. After an exhaustive analysis of charter schools across eight states, Zimmer and five colleagues found zero evidence that charters hurt the students who remain in nearby traditional schools.
And second, even if there were a trade-off, the notion that we should gut our children’s schooling on some Abrahamic altar to our “privilege” is unethical on its face. For millennia, philosophers have agreed that people should rank their families above other duties, even important ones. To Aristotle, to Aquinas, to the Confucian sage Mencius, this principle was plain as day. Common sense accords with their teachings.
Handicapping your own kids to provide an unproven benefit to a few other children is neither honorable nor brave. Prioritizing your kin is not a sin to atone for. It is a marker of moral humanity.
Don’t be like Mrs. Jellyby
Once progressives throw out social science and philosophy, only their emotional distaste for private enterprise remains. This is pure a priori assertion, laid bare when Professor Gautney declares in her follow-up that “consumer choice is not the stuff of freedom and democracy.”
“Public” means government, which stands for benevolence and justice. “Competition” means markets, and those embody callous selfishness. Keep those icky markets away from the children!
Recognize this for what it is: an aesthetic opinion. It is simply an expression of visceral distaste for the way certain ideas taste and feel. It is ludicrous to shove aside ethics and empirics so such an abstract, unfounded judgment can rule the day.
Don’t be like Mrs. Jellyby. Don’t let your confidence in your own intentions blind you to the inefficacy of your proposals. Pouring more money into the current system plainly will not work. And don’t harm people that you brought into this world just to placate your own conscience.
Start by seizing the best opportunities for your children. Then, fight like crazy for proven policies that let poor parents do exactly the same thing. School choice isn’t a “no-win ethical dilemma.” It’s as close to a win-win moral slam-dunk as we see in public policy. If you want to serve social justice, support it.