Why School Choice?

As National School Choice Week moved into the history books, we have to ask: Is school choice a “conservative” issue?

There is no doubt that conservatives support choice.  Stalwart conservative organizations such as the Family Research Council and the Heritage Foundation make choice a centerpiece of their education policy platforms.

But the arguments conservatives usually make in favor of school choice often sound more traditionally “progressive” than anything else.  Is this mere political strategy?  Or a more profound commitment to social justice for those without economic resources?

The stereotypically “conservative” reasons for school choice are fairly simple.  First, opening up a variety of schools that receive tax dollars will enshrine the principles of free-marketism into public education.  Second, a thriving choice system will send more tax dollars to religious schools.

And we do occasionally see such arguments by conservative intellectuals.  The Friedman Foundation, for instance, legacy of free-market guru Milton Friedman, argues that choice will fix America’s public-education system.  According to Milton and Rose Friedman, that system has too often been “deprived of the benefits of competition.”

Similarly, Notre Dame’s Richard Garnett recently argued that school choice could help save struggling Catholic schools like the one that educated US Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor.

More often, however, conservative activists argue for school choice using different themes.  Most commonly, choice is presented as the best hope of low-income families in neighborhoods with sub-par public schools.  During National School Choice Week, we saw an outpouring of such rhetoric.
For instance, the Heritage Foundation publicized a speech in favor of choice by former Alabama Congressman Artur Davis.  Choice, Davis argued, could give options to a seventh-grader who submitted the following barely literate argument:

“[Y]ou can make the school gooder by getting people that will do the jod that is pay for get a football tame for the kinds mybe a baksball tamoe get a other jamtacher for the school get a lot of tacher.”

According to Davis, this student from Highland Park, Michigan was passed into eighth grade despite his struggles with basic writing.  Choice, Davis argued, could help.  It could offer parents, teachers, and students better schools now.  According to the Heritage Foundation article, Davis believed that school choice offered “the education [children] need right now, instead of simply pouring more money into the program or waiting for some new reform plan.”

Similarly, a writer at the social-conservative Family Research Council insisted that the main reason to support school choice was that “School choice gives students an opportunity to achieve a quality education and helps them not to fall through the cracks. We should all be in favor of helping children reach their fullest potential.”

Perhaps the most compelling statement of this conservative argument for the progressive virtues of school choice came over twenty years ago in an essay by Berkeley Law School’s Professor Emeritus John Coons.  As Coons argued in his 1992 essay, school choice advocates too often focus only on choice as a free-market device.  Instead, Coons insisted, such choice must be seen as “Simple Justice.”  Despite efforts to desegregate schools and make schools less imposingly Protestant, Coons wrote,

“we still arrange education so that children of the wealthy can cluster in chosen government enclaves or in private schools; the rest get whatever school goes with the residence the family can afford. This socialism for the rich we blithely call ‘public,’ though no other public service entails such financial exclusivity. Whether the library, the swimming pool, the highway, or the hospital—if it is ‘public,’ it is accessible. But admission to the government school comes only with the price of the house. If the school is in Beverly Hills or Scarsdale, the poor need not apply.

Choice is the obvious remedy for such maldistribution and discrimination.”  

Coons argued that non-elite parents deserved the right to send their children to schools that matched parents’ religious and cultural beliefs.  Such parents did not write op-eds in the New York Times.  Such parents did not have the option to influence the greater culture by making award-winning films or prize-winning books.  “Children,” Coons wrote, “are the books written by the poor.”

Yet despite such protestations among conservative intellectuals and pundits, school choice remains its reputation as a conservative issue.  As one angry commenter noted on the Family Research Council website,

“you see, school choice is really about getting as many students to pray to God each day. And, how many of these school choice advocates would have pressed for integration back in the 50’s? Very few. It’s about supporting religious schools through taxpayer dollars.”

Similarly, Americans United for Separation of Church and State has protested,

“It’s about funding religious and other private schools with taxpayer dollars and ultimately destroying the public school system.

“If you think the Heritage Foundation, the Koch Brothers and Betsy DeVos are in this just to help to some poor kid in the inner city, they’ve got a privatized bridge in Brooklyn they want to sell you.”

We ask again: Why school choice?  Do conservatives support school choice because choice will crush teachers’ unions?  Because choice will promote a freer free market?  Because choice will get more students praying in schools?

Or do conservatives support choice in order to help more children faster?  Because choice offers a way to deliver better education to low-income students?

My hunch is that, for many conservatives, the best answer is all of the above.  No doubt many conservatives want freer markets and a more Christian public square.  And school choice promises to deliver those things.  But choice might also be attractive because it gives better schools to more people faster than any other measure. 

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