This is the latest post in our series on the voucher left.
For years, he led an effort to establish tuition tax credits for parents who send their children to private schools – an effort that never became law but did, at one remarkable moment in 1977, draw 50 co-sponsors, 26 of them Republicans and 24 of them Democrats. Except for a massive expansion of Florida’s tax credit scholarship program in 2010, which won backing from more than 40 percent of the state’s Democratic lawmakers, no major piece of private school choice legislation that we can think of has drawn that level of bipartisan support.
But while we’ve noted Moynihan’s passion for choice, it’s worth taking a closer look at his rationale. Nowhere does he lay out his case more clearly than in this April 1978 essay in Harper’s.
For Moynihan, public support for private schools was a matter of historical fact and constitutional authority, and of being clear-eyed about the well-intentioned but still-smothering effects of government bureaucracy.
It was also about staying true to one of America’s most enduring principles:
I take pluralism to be a valuable characteristic of education, as of much else in this society. We are many peoples, and our social arrangements reflect this disinclination to submerge our inherited distinctiveness in a homogenous whole.
Our private schools and colleges embody these values. They provide diversity to the society, choices to students and their parents, and a rich array of distinctive educational offerings that even the finest of public institutions may find difficult to supply, not least because they are public and must embody generalized values.
Diversity. Pluralism. Variety. These are values, too, and perhaps nowhere more valuable than in the experiences that our children have in their early years, when their values and attitudes are formed, their minds awakened, and their friendships formed. We cherish these values, and I do not believe it excessive to ask that that they be embodied in our national policies for American education.
Moynihan, of course, isn’t the only choice supporter who stressed diversity. Those arguments come from all points on the political spectrum. The Cato Institute makes them frequently and convincingly. So do some academics (see here and here). So does this rising political star, and fellow Democrat, from Moynihan’s home state:
“In every state in this country, we talk about diversity,” New York Assemblyman Marcos Crespo said at a gathering of Hispanic school choice supporters in Florida last year. “We talk about the strength of our diverse communities, we talk about the diversity of faith, of cultures and languages that make the United States what it is, certainly New York what it is. But then we don’t translate that very concept into the way in which we provide opportunities. Ladies and gentlemen, one size doesn’t fit all.”
While Moynihan could be quite the maverick (and an inspiration for decades-long debates), he wasn’t a lone wolf when it came to school choice and the Democrats of his era.
His co-sponsors on the tuition tax credit bill included Sen. George McGovern, the anti-war Democrat who had, in 1972, offered a similar proposal during his presidential run. Hubert Humphrey did the same in 1968. Jimmy Carter did the same in 1976. Clearly, many Great Society progressives didn’t view public support for private education as a conservative plot to privatize, or a net negative in the political calculus.
So what changed? In part, this (see paragraph two). Hopefully, we’ll get into more detail with a future post.
Moynihan’s essay notes public support for private schools runs deep in American history, and he serves up tidbits that should give pause to those who assume public support for private schooling crosses constitutional lines. For example, the Republican Party platform of 1876, forged during a dark period of anti-Catholic fervor, calls for a constitutional ban on use of public funds at faith-based institutions.
“Observe,” Moynihan writes. “In 1876 there were those who thought that public aid to church schools should be made unconstitutional. But at least they were clear that the Constitution would have to be amended to do so. It is extraordinary how this so obvious (his emphasis) fact got lost in the years that followed.”
Moynihan, in other words, was standing up for a minority population in the face of systemic oppression – typically a hallmark impulse of American liberals.
He also identifies an important source of such oppression: Bureaucracy. Concern about state power unites many on the Voucher Left, and Moynihan is particularly unsparing:
In the contest between public and private education, the national government feigns neutrality, but in fact it is anything but neutral. As program has been piled atop program, and regulation on regulation, the federal government has systematically organized its activities in ways that contribute to the decay of nonpublic education. Most likely, those responsible have not recognized this; they think themselves blind to the distinction between public and private. But of course they are not. They could not be. For governments inherently, routinely, automatically favor creatures of governments. They know no other way.
Moynihan concludes his essay with what, in the context of school choice and progressives, is an interesting twist on the term “redefined.” Some in the choice universe use that term to describe a broader, richer vision of public education – one not limited to public schools, and one that respects the multitude of visions that parents have for educating their children. They think public education should be redefined.
Moynihan, school choice liberal, says it’s liberalism that should be redefined.
Full disclosure: I work for Step Up For Students, which hosts this blog and helps administer Florida’s tax credit scholarship program, the largest private school choice program in the nation, and the state’s Personal Learning Scholarship Accounts program, its education savings accounts for students with special needs.