Argue Policy, Not Philosophy

Some things don’t mix well. Mustard and chocolate cake, seafood and ice cream, bacon and vegetables—all of these make me wrinkle my nose. As it turns out, hard-nosed philosophy and education policy also do not make a good pair.

Last week, Andy Smarick wrote about the problems that arise when philosophical views collide with education policy discussions. While Andy was specifically discussing the ongoing (and rather nasty) debate over charter schools, I think his point is applicable to education policy more generally.

Instead of arguing over well-supported points or thoughtful positions, education activists and experts too often find themselves battling over philosophical differences. As these debates become increasingly vitriolic, potentially valuable answers to important policy questions are ignored. Sadly, this means that kids like me may be denied the solutions we deserve while the grown-ups we depend on for help point fingers and sling insults.

Public policy—and especially education policy—is big, complicated, and often messy. In many cases, it is simply easier to default to deeply held beliefs or dismissive statements than substantive arguments. But, it is important to remember that standing in the middle of the policy vortex are real children affected in real ways by these discussions.

Undoubtedly, there will be disagreement. This is a good thing. More often than not, legitimate policy arguments produce better policy. In contrast, petty bickering and bitter philosophical warfare will likely result in perpetual stalemates. The trick, of course, is learning to separate the two.

I know that policy talk is boring. PPR, FTE, FRL—the acronyms alone are enough to make my little head spin. Certainly, wonkish policy discussions do not draw the same media attention as political intrigue or personal jabs. I, for one, would rather read something with pictures in it. Still, these discussions must be had. That’s what grownups are for, right?

So let’s talk about charter schools. Let’s talk about school choice, testing, and pay-for-performance. And let’s do it in a thoughtful, professional way. Until we do, we’ll all be stuck eating chocolate cake with mustard on it.