School Choice: More Than Doctrine & Prayer


School choice is misrepresented. According to Mother Jones, Betsy Devos’ push for school choice is grounded in the indoctrination of students into religious conservatism. To many, the only reason in support of School Choice is based in 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.

School choice properly understood is a historically grounded movement with a vision entirely different for what public schools could be. With roots in the classical liberal theorists, 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.

In its most theoretical form, school choice is the integration of individual liberty and market competition into public education; it is the idea that education is a commodity to be provided and parents should have the right to pick which schools are most suitable to their children. In practical effect, school choice models are frequently 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 of choice for each student is the school to which the money from each voucher is allocated.

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.”

States began to carry out Paine’s recommendation. Choice programs were implemented in Vermont and Maine 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 makes a similar argument for publically funded, though not publicly run, schools. He insists on the necessity of equitable access to education. However, he recommends 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 structure. Clint Bolick, attorney for the supreme court case Zelman v. Simmons-Harris, says in his book Voucher Wars that “private schools thereafter typically served two groups: the elite and those who dissented from the Protestant theology that dominated public schools.” Privately run and funded schools became the elite option, not the only option, while publically run and funded schools became the norm.

In contemporary American, the libertarian argument for school choice still makes a strong case. If we return to Mill, he gives a concise explanation of the libertarian argument. He writes, “a general State education is a mere contrivance for molding people to be exactly like one another.” We need not look farther than the name 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 product.

School choice envisions another model 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 schools 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.

As schools became more and more common for the  majority of youth in America, the arguments in favor of school choice moved from one of liberal economics to one of religious freedom. James Forman Jr. of the Georgetown 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. Contrary to contemporary battles though, the argument began not 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 Version of the Bible. Catholics flocked to their own private schools. The original religious battle tied to school choice was a Protestant/Catholic divide.

The political upheaval of the 60s 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 reading was given 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 the public schools argued that losing prayer and a value-based education would negatively impact the country; legally, they accused the public schools of advancing a humanistic worldview and 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.

Today, the argument from a religious perspective has not much changed. Proponents take issue with a system mired in a secular worldview and wish to see their children educated in the beliefs which they hold.

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 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 together to pass a school choice program in their city.

The rhetoric transitioned from religion to social justice. These new advocates spoke of the still de facto segregated schools, the right for minorities to determine their child’s education, and the adoption of best practices hindered by bureaucracy.

Bolick 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 that began to see this issue as one of race, not religion. After the Wall Street Journal published an Op-Ed 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 towards the Supreme Court. Opponents attacked it as a subtle expansion of religious zealotry. However, in the end, it was appeals to Brown v Board of Education that won swing vote Justice O’Conner.

By the time Zelman v Simmons-Harris 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 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 light of the civil rights movement—at least in the eyes of the court.

As with the other arguments in favor or school choice, it is pertinent to analyze the social justice claim. The answer is frustratingly inconclusive. Roland G. Fryer, a leading scholar in educational 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 would 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 is brave as she pushes to overhaul the public school system like no politician has dared. In order to engage, positively or negatively, with these sweeping policies changes, one needs to understand all arguments in favor of school choice. Again, this article is intended to show and analyze the merits of each argument in favor of school from The libertarian claim on a diversified market to the social justice claim looks for a way to improve the continuously failing urban schools in the country. Each argument has merits to it and neither is complete in itself. However, 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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