Commentary: Let’s start trusting families to make the right choices for their children’s education

Scott Kent

Editor’s note: You can read how three choice scholarship families plan to use their federal stimulus checks to supplement their children’s education here.

Congress recently passed a $1.9 trillion COVID relief bill that includes $1,400 direct payments to most Americans and their dependents. That followed the $600 checks Washington distributed liberally in December, and $1,200 payments Uncle Sam handed out last spring.

Free money! To do with as you please!

It’s interesting how that strategy is often frowned upon when it comes to K-12 education. Consider the opposition to education savings accounts. Giving people a pot of money to spend on their children’s education? Why, they can’t be trusted to make the right decisions!

“Parents can be fooled by inflated grades that make them believe their child is doing better, as well as hucksters who promise miracles with computer systems and magical thinking.”

“The bill … provides that parents, not educators, be the evaluators of their children’s educational progress.”

“I heard in committee that families should ‘shop around.’ We’re asking our most disadvantaged, least engaged families, to ‘shop around’?”

That’s the messy part about freedom: Sometimes people use it in ways you wouldn’t.

Critics of private school vouchers, and education savings accounts in particular, argue that this money properly belongs in more-trusted hands – public schools. Not public school parents, mind you, but public school districts, where the professionals can make wiser choices on how it will be spent.

This favors institutions over individuals and bolsters a ruling class that purports to know what’s best for you.

This mindset is hardly new. Benighted commoners have always needed to be protected from themselves by their enlightened betters – or so the latter rationalized it. Freedom threatened the proper order, sowed chaos – and, of course, dislodged the powerful from their perches.

The printing press is one of history’s great social disruptors. By making the printed word more available to the masses, it democratized knowledge. That not only took dead aim at the economic security of those who were tasked with copying texts by hand. It also decentralized authority by undermining the gatekeepers who decided what ideas would be published and how they would be disseminated.

One of the earliest beneficiaries of the printing press was Martin Luther, whose challenges to Catholic orthodoxy were read far and wide, spurring the Protestant Reformation.

In his novel “The Justification of Johann Gutenberg,” author Blake Morrison imagines a dialogue in which Gutenberg explains to a skeptical monk what he envisioned his new invention would accomplish:

Gutenberg: To help men and women be literate, to give them knowledge, to make books so cheap even a peasant might afford them: that is my hope, yes.

[…]

Head monk: The word of God needs to be interpreted by priests, not spread about like dung.

Gutenberg: I do not wish to despoil the Word.

Head monk: But it will happen. To hand it about to all and sundry is languorous. Would you have ploughmen and weavers debating the Gospel in taverns?

Gutenberg: If that is what they want to do.

Head monk: But what of the dangers? It would be like giving a candle to infants.

Education choice is to the public education professional class what the printing press was to the clerisy in the 15th century.

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