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?