One of the ways people become dependent upon old ways of doing things is that they mistake the means for the end. They get stuck on a particular way of reaching the end, ignoring or opposing other ways that might achieve the desired goal. It’s an easy mistake to make. Here’s an example:

Desired end: A better educated citizenry

Particular means: A system of public schools so students from poor families can have access to education, too (not just students from wealthier families)

Drift factors: The presumption that public schools need more funding to provide better education; the reality that enrollment affects funding levels; the decision to assign students to specific public schools in order to ensure funding, regardless of institutional quality, parental wishes, and emerging alternatives

Mistaken end: More students and money in public schools

Lost end: A better educated citizenry

A recent example of this process at work was Gene Nichol’s opposition to Opportunity Scholarships. Here was an academic heading the UNC-Chapel Hill Center on Poverty, Work, and Opportunity whose own “Message from the Director” called it a “lie” to pretend that poor students “enjoy a steely equality with the well-tutored and heavily-financed children of Chapel Hill and Myers Park.”

Nichol has very passionately held and expressed ideas on how to address issues of poverty and education, but they tend to entrenchment to the extent that alternate ways of achieving those (original) ends provoke his wrath. His fury about Opportunity Scholarships was towering, with lines about private schools teaching “nonsense (or venom),” legislators “howl[ing],” the state Supreme Court responding to “marching orders,” asides about “Huey Long,” etc.

Why, what fresh hell are Opportunity Scholarships?

The Opportunity Scholarships, or vouchers, would provide as much as $4,200 in scholarships for children from lower-income families to offset the cost of attending private schools. To be eligible in the first year, the children receiving the vouchers must have been enrolled in a public school the previous year and qualify for free- or reduced-price lunches.

What’s the problem with those? They’re geared specifically to enlarge educational opportunities for kids from the poorest families and therefore with the fewest educational options. Such a program would seem tailor-made at least for interest, rather than immediate opprobrium, from an academic center focused on areas of … poverty and opportunity.

Academics from North Carolina State University just issued the first study of Opportunity Scholarships. Carolina Journal reports on their findings:

In spring 2017, researchers, using the Iowa Test of Basic Skills in math and reading, analyzed the academic performance of 698 students in public and private schools.

The researchers found, in general, new voucher recipients scored significantly higher than their public school counterparts in math, reading, and language arts. Existing voucher recipients scored significantly higher than their public school counterparts in language arts and higher in math and reading.

“It may be the case that the North Carolina Opportunity Scholarship Program truly has a positive impact on student achievement, perhaps because it reaches highly economically disadvantaged students who have few school choice options in the absence of the program and perhaps the highest potential for academic growth, as a result,” the study reads.

It was always about the students.