We liberals see our public schools as the centerpiece of America’s “melting pot” society. Religiously divisive societies like Northern Ireland and Lebanon worry us. Teachers unions are generally applauded as providing needed job protection for committed professionals who are helping to shape the lives of our children. These beliefs combine to cause all too many liberals automatically to oppose school choice plans that would enable more low-income families to choose religious or other private schools for their children. That’s too bad, and it need not be that way.
Liberals certainly think that our society should pay special attention to the needs of low-income families, often non-white families. And it is clear to everyone that all too many of the children from these families are now poorly served by conventional public schools. To remedy this problem, liberals typically put their faith in the internal reform of public education. In the meantime, however, liberals with means seem content for other people’s children to remain stuck in public schools that they would never tolerate for their own children.
Lots of low-income families also are committed to public education, and if their local schools are bad, their focus is on making them better. But other low-income families would like to choose something else for their children. Surely liberals are predisposed to respect the judgments of all families, rich or poor, as to what they believe is in the best interest of their children.
Encouragingly, in large parts of America, school choice has now become a central feature of public education. Charter schools, magnet schools, inter-district transfer programs, and the like all enroll children on the basis of family choice. A number of school districts have even converted their entire enrollment system into a family choice plan that no longer bases assignment on the location of the family’s residence. Well-to-do families have traditionally been able to “choose” their children’s public schools by deciding where to live — especially in upper-income suburban enclaves which offer good public education to which low-income families are realistically denied access. The newer sorts of public school choice arrangements provide wider opportunities to low-income families, and liberals like President Obama support them.
Charter schools may threaten teachers unions, and they are often managed by entrepreneurs, sometimes even profit-making organizations. But they are still public schools — open to all (by lottery, if applications exceed seats available), free of charge, and free from religion.
This is exactly the problem, however, for low-income families who want faith-based schools for their children. School choice programs, such as Milwaukee’s voucher program and Florida’s tax credit scholarship program, target these families. Through them, tens of thousands of families now can opt for something they could not otherwise afford. Most other wealthy nations also subsidize that sort of choice. Yet, American liberals are the most outspoken opponents of such plans.
This stance is inconsistent with fundamental liberal beliefs. Liberals are all for “choice” when it comes to abortion and want the government to pay for abortions sought by poor women. Why can’t more liberals see the desirability of fully extending choice to low-income families when it comes to education?
Some liberals persist in arguing that “common” public schools are necessary because they are society’s way of transmitting democracy and tolerance to everyone. This is a romanticized picture of what actually happens in public schools. Moreover, America’s private schools don’t teach intolerance. To the contrary, research shows that their students become as or more tolerant than their public school-going counterparts. Indeed, it is the closing off of private schools to those who cannot afford them that interferes with parents’ fundamental exercise of their free-speech rights when they are unable to select the educational values their children are taught.
Contrast America’s system of higher education. The federal government provides “Pell Grants” to low-income students regardless of whether they attend public or private colleges. The great private universities all provide additional tuition assistance to low-income applicants and many of the best admit on a needs-blind basis. It is left to students and their parents to decide whether or not they wish to attend a faith-affiliated college.
Liberals who personally care about religion and who send their children to religious schools often seem indifferent to the religious beliefs of parents who are too poor to make the same choice for their children. Giving vouchers or tax credit-funded scholarships to children from low-income families should be a “free exercise” issue with civil liberties organizations. Instead, these programs are miscast as an “establishment” of religion. But the right kind of school choice plan no more breaches the “wall of separation” between church and state than does the current income tax deductibility of contributions to religious organizations.
Of course, school choice by itself is not a “silver bullet” that will magically cure all our educational woes. But school choice plans can help low-income families obtain something they want for their children that even the most liberal charter school plan cannot provide — religious education. My wife and I are not religious and we never sent (or wanted to send) our daughter to a religious school. But we could have afforded it if it had been our family preference. I consider myself a liberal, and I find it anything but liberal to automatically oppose choice plans that could empower low-income families to select for their children from among the options I had for mine.