“I would give no man a reason upon compulsion.”

— Henry IV, Shakespeare

Throughout the last half-century, the leading argument for subsidizing low-income parents to choose their child’s school has been an alleged positive effect of choice upon test scores.

The academy, and in turn, the media, have had us focus upon statistics to convey, in charts and numbers, a message that can reach a popular audience. Such reports do show modest improvements on standardized tests among those children rescued from inner-city schools by parents who have received some form of tuition subsidy.

At very worst, choice does no harm.

Well and good, but, paradoxically – and my theme here – this focus upon numbers has been damaging to the cause of choice by distracting us from other more human effects of empowering parents. It is most important that public discourse on the subject begin to recognize and stress these more profound, if non-statistical, consequences.

I mean simple observations that clarify the role of mothers and fathers as crucial actors, not only in the life of this child but that of the entire society. Perhaps it takes a village to raise a child, but so much more does it take a parent with the intimacy and financial capacity to exercise that responsibility and authority guaranteed in theory by our constitution.

Why then does society hesitate to recognize and respond to this reality? Was there, and is there still, some justification for our 19th century determination to save immigrant children from the flaws of their families? I fear not.

That elitist national venture with its misnamed “public” schools and its Blaine amendments was undertaken to ensue that the children of unmoneyed Jews and Catholics would get the true American message.

And when, in the 20th century, that phobia began to fade, there came John Dewey et al. to re-imagine teaching as a science, and then of course, the Supreme Court to insure that no talk of God be heard in the classroom. And finally came the teachers union to guarantee both the system’s rule over the poor and the gross power of the union bosses.

Once again, we may recall the late Albert Shanker telling the world repeatedly: “I’ll start representing children when they start paying union dues” – which is precisely what every child does by getting caught in one of Albert’s schools.

Teaching is a high profession. The devotion of the millions of its members is the rule. However, in the case of inner-city public schools, the personal greed and political behavior of its union leaders have corrupted its practice. There is no justification for treating the poor as incompetent decisionmakers unless it be our plan to keep them so.

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