Time for broader debate on school choice

John E. Coons

Much has been written on school vouchers that assumes they are primarily about economic efficiency and increasing the private sector’s role in education – a notion of educational choice that is widespread, understandable … and grossly incomplete.

Fifty years ago, the 18th Century idea of subsidized parental choice was reintroduced as a sub-species of free market theory. To choose a school became equivalent in form and in our discourse to the private procurement of insurance or apples; the parties exchange promises, then they perform.

There is truth to this; the school and the parent do make mutual promises that, by and large, the law will enforce. But to reduce parental choice to a simple bargain has been a tragic contraction of thought – an intellectual and political calamity. Any such contract to educate a child is profoundly more complex than the exchange of promises between A and B. Whether subsidized parental choice is a good idea thus is left an unintelligible question; it cannot be reduced to arguments for and against freedom of contract because children are not free.

This is a decree of nature itself. “Choice” is grown-up dominance of the child. This holds whether the deciding adult is a parent or a government stranger; one or the other will assign Susie to a school. The social and political issue, then, is more complex than a preference for or against free contract. Here in America the question is this: Should government continue to decide for children of have-not families, while the rest of us – as a matter of right – send our children to our own favorite school, whether public, private, or religious?

Should America continue to distrust the parent from the lower half? The answer should depend, not merely upon one’s preference or freedom of contract, but upon a prediction of myriad effects that such choices will have upon the child, the family, and the society. Would empowering mothers and fathers to act responsibly be a good or bad policy for all of us? And straight off: If it is good for the rich, why not for the rest of us? To ask this question enlarges the conversation far beyond test scores and controlling cost.

To be clear, compulsory education itself is not at issue. But, if this duty to educate is consistent with the right (and practical reality) of the wealthier family to use the school to express its deepest values, what practical reasons suggest that the rest of us should get potluck from the very government that imposes the duty? Maybe someone can justify the status quo; in any case, it is time to make the conversation a bit broader than the exchange of proverbs about the market.

(Image from thevoiceforschoolchoice.wordpress.com)

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