The United States justifiably celebrates its pluralism. The mandate to find unity in diversity — e pluribus unum — is predicated, not on the premise that all peculiarities of creed or color must be washed away; instead, it insists that all such cultural and social differences must be respected. Part and parcel of this freedom is the right of parents to educate their children as they see fit. Like all rights, this one carries with it a duty: to prepare the child adequately for participation in society by being attentive to technical and life skills as well as moral formation.
Yet, this right has been imperfectly recognized for some time. Pursuing the goal of universal education, a worthy end in itself, nineteenth-century reformers gradually concentrated in city, state, and national governments the funding and control of what had been a predominantly non-governmental, disparate, and radically local regime of education. Immediately, the move toward unitary systems fueled conflict over a neuralgic point of America’s pluralist experiment: Protestant-Catholic relations. Controversy over schooling was one of the combustible ingredients leading to explosions of violence in cities such as Philadelphia and New York during the 1830s and 1840s.
A modus vivendi was reached when Catholics determined to build their own parochial system. The Supreme Court guaranteed the legality of the Catholic parochial system in its 1925 Pierce decision, and soon Catholics in the United States would build the largest private school system in the world. At its height in 1965, the system was comprised of 13,500 schools, serving 5.6 million students across primary (4.5 million) and secondary levels.
Meanwhile, battles over public school curricula continued, as constituencies of many varieties perceived that what they viewed as an appropriate education for their children was not served by a public system that inexorably drifted toward a lowest-common-denominator form of education. Some religious groups such as Lutherans and Dutch Reformed began or maintained their own schools, and parents seeking social status or demanding rigorous standards enrolled their children in private academies.
A Hybrid System
Thus, the pluralist ideal survived but in a deformed shape. The right of parents to direct their children’s education was recognized in theory, but in practice every citizen was compelled to pay for the government school system. The result was an arrangement unjust at its core. Parents devoted to a particular form of education for religious or other reasons might choose to sacrifice other goods to fund their children’s education outside of the government system. For wealthy families, the choice might come easily; for most, the decision was difficult. The incentive to participate in the government system was strong, and genuine freedom in education remained an elusive ideal.
We have thus come to the present, a hybrid system of private schools increasingly off-limits to the working and even middle classes and state schools plagued by inefficiencies, inequities, and in some cases, abject failure. By no means does this generalization denigrate the good work that thousands of educators in both private and public systems do every day. Some religious schools strive ardently to keep open the prospect of a first-rate education for students of poor parents and challenging backgrounds. Some public schools provide outstanding academic and extracurricular opportunities for their students. Yet too many students are, despite political rhetoric and flawed legislation, “left behind.”
Conscientious parents naturally assert their freedom whenever given the opportunity. School district choice among public systems is extremely popular. Private school spots available through vouchers in locales such as Milwaukee, Cleveland, and Washington, D.C., have been grasped as quickly as they appear. Charter schools have exhibited some widely publicized hazards, but on the whole they have been successful, an affordable alternative to traditional public schools. Finally, an increasing number of parents have opted out of conventional educational models altogether: Some two million students were homeschooled in 2008.
Positive developments in the political and legal culture of education have permitted these exercises of liberty, resulting in tremendous gains in parent satisfaction, cost efficiency, and most importantly, student achievement. Still, old ways of thinking, archaic prejudices, and special interests remain formidable obstacles on the path to further progress. To encourage continued improvements in education — in whichever setting that may occur — parents must be granted greater control over and responsibility for their schooling choices. At its root, this means breaking the stranglehold on education dollars that government systems currently enjoy. It means returning control of that money to parents.
Parents In Control
Obviously Catholic and other private schools stand to gain from such reform, but proposing it is far from special pleading. The appeal and urgency of school choice lies precisely in its implications for the common good of all children — regardless of religious persuasion or socio-economic status. Indeed, the exact outcome of extending educational freedom is hard to predict: that is the nature of freedom. What is certain is that the worst elements of the current state-run systems would not be tolerated, for no parent wants her child to fail.
Returning financial control to parents sets in motion a series of favorable developments: Parents demand excellence of the schools; administrators demand excellence of the teachers; students and teachers alike thrive on the fertilizer of high expectations. The potential of parental responsibility and educational choice has already been demonstrated; it remains to enshrine these concepts in the nation’s culture and law.
Some skeptical observers may suspect that school choice is but a stalking horse for public funding of religious institutions. They may guess that tax breaks for tuition, for example, are intended primarily or even exclusively to enhance the bottom line of private schools. In a climate of public schooling challenges, when large numbers of students are failing to achieve basic competency, they wonder, should we not focus our resources on public schools?
Public education is, indeed, facing its own crisis, one differing in some ways from that confronting Catholic education. More than 25 percent of public school students fail to graduate high school, but this figure masks a dramatic socio-economic divergence: The dropout rate for poor students is 10 times that of wealthier students. Public schooling in the United States is thus highly stratified. Good districts enjoy healthy levels of funding through property taxes, while the tax base of poor districts leads to lower levels for the most challenging student populations. Yet funding has become the focus of accusations of inequity to the detriment of the debate over improving public education. The per capita spending per student, even in poor districts, far exceeds the per capita spending at Catholic schools, yet Catholic schools enjoy better outcomes on a range of indicators.
There are a number of factors contributing to this relative inefficiency in the public system. State and federal regulations on everything from classroom safety to teacher qualifications, while well intended, are excessive and do not adequately permit for local variation or administrative judgment. Teacher unions secure pay scales higher than a market rate (and significantly higher than most private schools). Lacking a rational system of incentives for cutting costs, waste is endemic in many public schools.
Like Catholic schools, public education has been a highly successful means of enabling Americans of every socio-economic and ethnic background to gain the knowledge and skill necessary to be productive citizens. Yet if American education is to succeed for future generations of its students, reform and improvement are necessary. In too many cases, public schools have too little to show for the resources that they absorb.
In this context, school choice represents a promising method for spurring improvement. Most parents desire solid education for their children in a safe and supportive environment. Too many public schools do not provide such an environment. Available evidence suggests that competition among individual schools and among districts encourages academic improvement. Despite heated rhetoric to the contrary, it is not true that school choice measures drain public schools of resources. Implementation of choice, because of the positive incentives it frames, results in a more efficient allocation of available educational resources, benefiting all students.
Competition has in some circles accumulated negative connotations. It is associated with a cutthroat or winner-takes-all mentality. Yet, there is a more benign understanding of competition that recognizes it as a useful motivation in human endeavor. Countless teachers and institutions throughout the history of schooling have recognized its potential, staging various kinds of contests ranging from quiz bowls to science fairs to academic honor rolls. Conducted in the proper spirit, these contests are not harmful, elevating those who perform well at the expense of those who do not. Instead, they encourage all students to strive for excellence, recognizing that while not all will attain it, all will benefit from the exercise. Our educational systems would do well to restore this sense of competition to the educational enterprise as a whole. School choice is one reform that can contribute to this end.
A final mark in favor of school choice is that it respects the pluralism inherent in contemporary culture. Diversity raises understandable concerns about assimilation and the creation of a common culture adequate to restrain the potentially damaging centrifugal forces of ethnic and religious tensions. Yet fear of difference goes too far when it demands uniformity, and nowhere is enforcement of such uniformity as tempting or as easily accomplished as in government-managed primary and secondary education.
In light of this, the proliferation of genuine diversity in education that would almost certainly result from a vigorous implementation of school choice would better honor the rightful autonomy of individuals and families. Devoutly religious parents would not be forced to choose between an education that integrates their theological views but at the cost of painful financial sacrifice and a free school that undermines, or at least fails to buttress, the principles that they hold dear. Even with respect to purely academic pursuits, diversity could be honored. While a genuine education must cover certain basic fields, students might legitimately choose schools with particular strength in various areas such as science, visual arts, or literature.
The benefits of school choice are many, which should not be surprising. When parents are encouraged to take responsibility for their children’s education, both parents and students begin to view education in a different light. Shifting parents and children from a position of dependency on government to a position of empowerment promotes a vision of persons as participants in society, rather than observers or dependents.
There will, of course, be parents who neglect their responsibilities. There will always be roles for charitable institutions and governments to ensure that everything possible is done to given children of negligent parents the opportunity to excel. This is hardly a strike against school choice: Even now the parental background of students plays a major if not decisive role in the potential for successful completion of students’ educational regimen. Policy should be formulated to support good parents and encourage mediocre ones; it should not be designed under the assumption that all parents are deficient.
School choice, then, far from being a concession to special interests, is a plan for reforming troubled schools, rewarding excellent schools, and empowering parents and students to take responsibility for seeking and attaining the education they deem necessary and appropriate for participation in a contemporary world. It is good for individuals, and it is good for society.
Excerpted from Catholic Education and the Promise of School Choice (January 2010), a new volume in the Acton Institute’s Christian Social Thought Series.