School Choice Is More Than a Religious Movement

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School choice is misrepresented. According to Mother Jones, Betsy Devos’s push for school choice is grounded in a desire to indoctrinate students into religious conservatism. To many, the only reason to support school choice comes from a religious dogmatism in which parents shun the secular worldview of public school and seek financial aid for alternatives. However, the movement is far more complex than a small cohort of rich evangelicals hoping to advance the Kingdom of God.

In its most theoretical form, school choice is the integration of individual liberty and market competition into public education; it treats education as a commodity to be provided, where parents have the right to pick which schools are most suitable for their children. In practical effect, school choice is built out from a base of public funding, most commonly in the form of vouchers in which the state ties money to each student and the school that gets the student gets the money, instead of the traditional model where property taxes fund a local neighborhood school.

In contrast to the view put forth by Mother Jones and others, in reality, it is a historically grounded movement with a vision entirely different for what public schools could be. With roots in classically liberal theory, the popular defense of school choice has evolved from its origin in a libertarian ideology to one of religious liberty and finally into a contemporary social justice movement. After an election with shifting power, it is pertinent that policy makers, both left and right, consider and discuss school choice in all of its dimensions, not just the religious.

The Libertarian Argument

Arguably, the first to suggest such an arrangement was Thomas Paine in his Rights of Man. At the time of its publication, only one kind of school existed: private schools. However, Paine saw the benefits of a universally educated populace and so suggested that “the method will be to allow for each of these [poor] children ten shillings a year for the expense of schooling.” He proposed vouchers.

States began to carry out Paine’s recommendation. Vermont and Maine implemented choice programs in 1869 and 1873, respectively. While not called vouchers or school choice in its early years, the structure of voucher-driven funding provided to individual students for education predates public schools in America and was the only way for children outside of affluent families to receive an education.

John Stuart Mill made a similar early argument for publicly funded, though not publicly run, schools. He insisted on the necessity of equitable access to education. He recommended the state cease regulation and instead leave parents “to obtain the education where and how they pleased, and content itself with helping to pay the school fees of the poorer classes of children.”

However, as public schools grew in popularity and more students from varied backgrounds began to attend, the overarching structure began to morph away from this egalitarian beginning. Privately run and funded schools became the elite option, not the only option, while schools that were both publicly run and funded became the norm.

In contemporary America, the libertarian argument for school choice makes a strong case. Mill gave a concise explanation of the libertarian argument. He wrote that “a general State education is a mere contrivance for molding people to be exactly like one another.” We need not look farther than Common Core to see that public schools are uniform and thereby shape a uniform student. From the ringing of bells to the 12-year assembly line, they are factories pumping out a common product.

School choice envisions another ideal for schools. With an increase in liberty, schools would have the freedom to differentiate and create niche markets. Along with the standard public school model, there would be a growth in project-based learning, trade schools, art schools, tech schools, religious schools of every variety, military academies, the achievement-driven charter model, and school types as of now not yet imagined.

The libertarian argument does not promise higher test scores but a populace educated by a truly diverse market of choices. The end result would not necessarily be a smarter public but rather diverse schools making an intellectually diverse populace—an end result that few would challenge.

The Religious Argument

As public schools became common for the majority of youth in America, the argument in favor of school choice moved from one of liberal economics to one of religious freedom. James Forman, Jr. of Georgetown’s law school calls this a “value claim” in support of school choice. Parents have the right to choose in what value system their children are to be taught. Interestingly, while this position is the main argument with which the left engages, it is one that few school choice advocates defend or even address.

That being said, contrary to contemporary battles, the argument did not begin between secular and evangelical. Protestants, as the overwhelming majority in a fledgling country, won many early educational battles; schools encouraged personal prayers and the King James Bible. Catholics flocked to their own private schools, and the original religious battle over schools began as a Protestant-Catholic divide.

However, the political upheaval of the 1960s became a catalyst for court-driven change, which prompted the legal unwinding of religious protection and the transition to a secular-Christian divide. In 1962, Engle v. Vitale deemed school prayer unconstitutional, and a year later a daily Bible devotional received the same fate. Feeling disenfranchised, the fight shifted from an intra-denominational conflict characterized by Christian factions fighting over values to Christians united against the secularizing state.

Opponents of public schools argued that losing prayer and a value-based education would negatively impact the culture of the country; legally, they accused the public schools of advancing a humanistic worldview, denying the religious a right to choose how their children were educated. They sought either the reinclusion of religious ideology or funding for their own schools. Generally, their arguments failed.

When subsumed into the libertarian argument, the value claim is persuasive. When discussing high educational theory, most agree that it is impossible to educate a child without advancing a value system of some kind. Funding overtly religious schools in a libertarian model would only add to the diversity of options provided to parents.

However, if the value claim is advanced as the only argument for school choice, it is largely unconvincing. The establishment clause of the First Amendment says clearly that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion.” While one can respect one’s desire to educate their children in their own belief system, the value claim alone is not enough to warrant an overhaul of the public school system.

The Social Justice Argument

The 1990s saw the appearance of a new kind of school choice advocate. In Milwaukee, the contemporary voucher movement appeared for the first time when Wisconsin State Senator Polly Williams, Governor Tommy Thompson, and The Bradley Foundation teamed up to pass a school choice program in their city. These new advocates spoke of the still de facto segregated schools, the right of minorities to determine their children’s education, and the adoption of best practices hindered by bureaucracy.

Clint Bolick, lead attorney for the movement and author of the book Voucher Wars, tells of how rows and rows of African-American parents attended every court meeting in defense of the program and the new wave of civil rights activists who began to see this issue as one of race, not religion. After John Fund penned three op-eds in the Wall Street Journal in support of vouchers, Bolick says that “for the first time in a major national media outlet, the civil rights banner was unfurled over the school choice”

School choice underwent a long, arduous battle toward the Supreme Court. In the end, it was appeals to Brown v. Board of Education that won swing vote Justice O’Conner. When Zelman v. Simmons-Harris—the court case that ultimately determined choice’s legality—had finished its time in the Supreme Court, Justice Rehnquist wrote in the majority opinion that 

any objective observer familiar with the full history and context of the Ohio [choice] program would reasonably view it as one aspect of a broader undertaking to assist poor children in failed schools, not as an endorsement of religious schooling in general.

Proponents had successfully recast this political battle in the context of the civil rights movement—at least in the eyes of the court.

As with the other arguments in favor of school choice, it is pertinent to analyze the social justice claim. The answer is frustratingly inconclusive. Roland G. Fryer, a leading scholar at Harvard in education reform, has said simply, “I thought vouchers would show a huge treatment effect. They don’t.” Other studies point in contradictory directions. Some show significant improvement; others show little. While promising, the social justice argument will require more research into not only student achievement, but parent satisfaction, long-term effects, and fiscal impact before it can be advanced as the sole defense.

Betsy DeVos hopes to overhaul the public school system as no politician has dared. From the libertarian claim to the social justice claim, all proponents of choice are looking for a way to improve the continuously failing urban, suburban, and rural schools in the country. No argument is complete in itself. However, in the face of its historical legal battles and contemporary slander, it is a definitive point to be made that school choice is a movement with more substance than just doctrine and prayer.
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