Motte-and-bailey clues to the structure of the school choice coalition

This spring, conservatives in the Arizona legislature look like they can’t make up their mind. Do they support public-school choice that allows parents to pick a public school, or do they want to mandate and ban subjects as they would prefer? Conservative legislators consistently say they support school choice, and the state Senate education committee voted last month to subsidize transportation expenses of parents to enable more parents of moderate means to take advantage of open enrollment and charter schools.

But sometimes the instinct to control local school districts seems more important to the conservative wing of the state GOP. The senate last week voted on a party-line vote to prevent local schools from having the choice of offering comprehensive and age-appropriate sex education in elementary grades.

The banning of any sex education for younger students would reduce choice–there would be no public schools that offer age-appropriate sex education for parents who want it taught to their children.1 Surveys consistently show that the vast majority of parents want comprehensive sex education at middle and high school, and it’s likely that a large minority would want some age-appropriate sex education in elementary schools.2

This consequence–undermining the putative benefits of public school choice–is true for almost any subject where a legislator would like to either require or prohibit certain topics from instruction. It is tempting to decide for both schools and parents on every possible subject. But every time that it tries to manage the content of what all public schools teach, especially in areas of controversy, the legislature undercuts its claims to value choice.

In a broader sense, this is the policy equivalent of a motte-and-bailey style of argumentation. The gist of motte-and-bailey is that someone pivots between a bold position and a fallback claim that’s easier to defend. In argumentation over school choice, this looks different from what the Arizona legislature is doing this session. Typically, the school choice motte-and-bailey takes one of two forms:

  • School choice leads to higher achievement and other outcomes for participants in charter schools or voucher programs (strong claim: the bailey), but even if they don’t, the public costs are much lower than in local public schools (the easier-to-defend claim, or the motte).
  • School choice leads to higher achievement and other outcomes for participants in choice programs (the bailey), but even if they don’t, we should value parental choice (the motte).

I see Arizona’s legislative maneuvering this year as a motte-and-bailey structure not in terms of arguments but in terms of the state’s relationship to schools. The bailey in many states is setting up an education policy that makes a claim about a beneficial process that will lead to good results. The motte (or fallback position) is to directly manage schools for those putative good results. The key to understanding the state political environment is to identify the fallback position of a majority coalition. In some areas of policy, or in some states, a process would be the fallback position. But in the case of conservative Arizona Republicans, the fallback position is to mandate or ban specific content in the schools.

Nicholas Shackel first used the motte-and-bailey term in analyzing (or explaining his frustrations with) philosophical positions that he thought were a bait-and-switch structure. And in the middle of an argument, I can see the frustration of facing a motte-and-bailey pair of positions! But I think it can also be useful to think of the motte-and-bailey as a clue as to the structure of a political coalition, or rather to see the constellation of motte-and-bailey arguments as an important clue.

To wit: among school-choice advocates, we can identify at least three types of motte-and-bailey structures, which we can distinguish by the fallback positions. In each case, the bailey (or lesser-defensible position) is that school choice is a process that will lead to better outcomes. But look at the range of fallback positions:

  • School choice gives parents more options
  • School choice is cheaper on the public purse
  • We can always directly manage schools anyway

These are important elements of the school choice coalition, revealed by either arguments I’ve observed, or the behavior of state legislatures. Some part of the coalition truly prioritizes parental choice as a primary value, even if choice does not result in better school outcomes. But not everyone: the majority of the Arizona state senate this year (among others) is fine with restricting parental choice in the area of sex education their children receive. Another part of the coalition values the restriction of inputs into schools, even if choice does not result in better school outcomes. But not everyone: I’m pretty sure that many parents who choose vouchers or charter schools don’t want their neighbor’s children going to schools with aged and inadequate HVAC systems in a pandemic! And the legislative majority in the state senate values their ability to control local public schools and charter schools, and that is more important than the process of choice. But again, I’m confident that is not shared by many who hold the other fallback positions (and have heard the same at least from a libertarian in Arizona).

As I implied above, I am less harsh in my attitude towards motte-and-bailey structures than those who think that they represent either a logical fallacy or manipulation. Human beings face a range of cross-pressures on our thoughts, and I’m sure all of us are filled with motte-and-bailey arguments. It might be more useful to see what we can discover about ourselves through our motte-and-bailey tendencies, and what we can discover about society. There are many policy coalitions, and it’s usually not hard to figure out the tensions among the parts of a coalition, especially for historians looking at things in retrospect. But looking at the fallback positions in a range of motte-and-bailey structures can also be helpful in analyzing coalitions.

If you enjoyed this post, please consider subscribing to the RSS feed to have future articles delivered to your feed reader, and sign up for my irregular newsletter below!


  1. Age-approriate sex education for elementary students looks very different from the curriculum for adolescents! []
  2. The most recent data I could find about elementary schools is about a decade old from Harris County, Texas, which strongly suggests this conclusion. []