The gurus of school choice have often shuddered at the word “regulation.” On occasion this instinctive hostility has been tactically justified. Viewed objectively, however, it is meaningless – even self-contradictory. And too often has it driven fair-minded listeners from the civic conversation about the ideal structure of this very necessary reform called “school choice.”
Regulation is itself a pre-condition of any system of choice, whether the intended beneficiary be the have-not family or the comfortable suburbanite. The empowerment of parents always comes as the effect of a particular set of rules. Nor is this reality limited to reforms aimed at the complex and private world of the family. The simplest of legal systems – one, for example, that embraced the most complete market freedom – would depend upon the regulatory oversight of some third-party authority to interpret and enforce those promises which constitute any market. Contracts are not self-enforcing. Nor is parental choice or any other human regime.
Children present perhaps the most obvious example of my point; by nature their lives will be regulated by someone. The only question is “by whom?” That the state will be one of the players seems quietly accepted by all. This includes the school choice reformer who has unequivocally embraced compulsory education – a thing to be enforced and paid for by the state. The issue, then, becomes how far beyond the requirement of schooling shall the state penetrate the natural territory of the family?
We appear to agree on rules forbidding child abuse. Beyond this and compulsory schooling, where shall we the people allow (or require) the state to go? The answer can come only in some cluster of regulation – some that command, some that limit the state. If it is parents who are to rule (i.e., to regulate their children), then government must be commanded (again, regulated) first – in a positive way – to subsidize the family’s preference in schooling, and second – negatively – to avoid subverting parental authority by unnecessary busybody rules. The state itself must be ruled in both positive and negative ways: it must do this; it may do this – but not that.