Not surprisingly, when the symbols of school choice in the 1990s became minority students trapped in failing schools in places like Milwaukee and Cleveland, the issue changed. Though still controversial, choice has expanded steadily ever since. In fact, Gintis wrote the passage above as the forward to a book about charter schools.
Fairly or not, imagery matters. Social movements do not succeed on moral force alone; they need leadership and strategy as well. Today's reformers are battling negative imagery as well as the reflexive conservatism that often hampers public school reform. Consequently they are fighting for incremental reform rather than the dramatic change the country needs.
The blame for that lies not just with those resisting reform. It is up to reformers to deliberately highlight compelling symbols and engage more Americans in the debate. Given the power of vested interests and the politics of education, it's hard to see serious school reform without more attention paid to how potent symbols can help raise an army to support social change.