The New York Times reports that increasing numbers of New York City parents are forking over their dollars to companies that prep 3 and 4 year-olds for the city’s gifted and talented assessment test. I read this with considerable dismay but little surprise. Parents waste money on silly ideas, and perhaps in a few years I’ll be laughing at this as hard as I did at the Baby Einstein refund news. What really caught my attention was not the fact that parents are doing this, but the way parents talked about it.
One mother, Melisa Kehlmann, is quoted as saying “I just want the opportunity to have choice”. Her language struck me as perfectly capturing the problem.
The premise of “choice” is that it provides opportunities to parents and children that would otherwise be unavailable to them. Parents with money have always had ample choices and ample opportunities, and school choice is supposed to make comparable opportunities available to families who cannot afford to pay for them. Choice, in short, is supposed to create opportunities. “The opportunity to have a choice”, however, correctly structures the situation: Having a choice presupposes opportunity. The fact that parents are paying to have their children tutored for the gifted and talented assessment is yet one more piece of evidence that school choice only gives some people – those who already have some purchase on opportunity – a choice.
This is deeply problematic in a liberal democracy based on the idea that all people are rational choosers, with an equal right to determine the course of their own lives. Choice is supposed to be a right, and Ms. Kehlmann’s rhetoric captures this too. Her opening words “I just want . . .” imply that this is a plea for minimal basic rights. It is a phrase that one often reads in accounts of people struck by misfortune, famine or natural disaster, for instance, and usually a request for the bare necessities. One usually hears it in sentences like “I just want food for my baby”, or “I just want a roof over my head”. Nothing fancy, not organic baby food or an entire house, just sustenance and shelter. “I just want the opportunity to have a choice” is comic, given the context. “I just want” to pay to give my child a better chance to get into program that is supposed to be merit based strikes me as a plea along the lines of “I just want a Manhattan townhouse and a place in the Hamptons”. And yet, the rhetoric is accurate, inasmuch as choice is, after all, supposed to be a basic right.