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The Toxic Impact of Culture Wars on Policy

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Michael R. Ford
February 6, 2023

Early in my career I worked as a researcher and lobbyist for a nonprofit organization advocating for education reform in Milwaukee. Though school choice was (and remains) a controversial topic, I was blissfully unaware of the passion people had around the issue. That changed the more time I spent at the state capital. Though all part of the same job, it was difficult to square the heated political rhetoric around school choice I would hear one day while lobbying with the impassioned voices advocating for low-income children in Milwaukee schools the next. In other words, the policy debate felt detached from the policy itself. I struggled mightily to make sense of why.

Now, I do get why school choice policies are controversial. As I wrote in my 2017 book, such policies challenge traditional framings of what is and is not a public good or service. Further, the academic research on the impacts of school choice programs reveals the good, the bad and the ugly. But the debates around school choice rarely focus on evidence or intent or even reality. Instead, school choice has become another public policy mired in the United States’ culture wars.

Culture war is a bit of a vague term, but to me it refers to a state of collective groupthink that manifests in political tribalism. In this state a policy is good if it is supported by someone on my side, and a policy is bad if it is supported by someone not on my side. There is no room for nuance in a culture war. In the context of school choice, it is either a panacea for all that ails public education, or, it is an existential threat to public education. Suffice to say a state of collective groupthink does not lead to good public policy.

Think of the things that make a public policy reform successful. First there needs to be a theory of action explaining why a policy will work. Ideally this is existing research, but in the case of new policy, it may be a theory or argument. Second, there needs to be a way to objectively measure success. This requires a definition of what success looks like, and a framework for evaluating the policy. Third, there needs to be a feedback loop that informs policymakers on how to improve the policy based on objective evaluation. Finally, there needs to be a willingness among policymakers to alter a policy based on feedback provided.

All of these things are undermined by our culture wars. Going back to the debate over school choice policies. The theory of action relates to the New Public Management framing, i.e., that market forces can be infused into service delivery to improve outcomes. The validity of the theory of action should be a function of evidence. However, it becomes irrelevant when school choice is viewed through the lens of our culture wars. School choice is good because parental freedom, however defined, takes precedent over anything else.

And if the cultural concept of parental freedom is the driver of a policy, there is no need to objectively evaluate success—that the policy is good is predetermined. Instead all effort is expended in cherry picking results that support one’s position. Policy evaluation becomes a political quest for validation rather than an administrative task to improve K-12 education. Related, what good is a feedback loop when you know you are right? Returning to school choice, a culture war lens means ignoring a nuanced body of research in favor of a simple cultural framing: You are either for parental freedom or against it. It follows that there is no willingness to implement policy changes because no changes will ever be deemed necessary.  

Though I use school choice as example, there are plenty of other public policy reforms that get swept up in ideologically driven culture wars. The tragedy is that our divisions allow poor policies to continue failing in perpetuity, good policies to be ignored and flawed policies to stay flawed rather than be improved. In a state of policy paralysis we all lose. I certainly do not know how to end the culture wars, but, I do know those of us privileged to teach the next generation of public leaders need to prepare them to navigate in this difficult moment. 

Author: Michael R. Ford is an associate professor of public administration at the University of Wisconsin  Oshkosh, where he teaches graduate courses in budgeting and research methods. He frequently publishes on the topics of public and nonprofit board governance, accountability and school choice. He currently serves an elected member of the Oshkosh, WI Common Council.

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