Most of the policy goals that President Donald Trump outlined in his address to Congress are subjects of heated public controversy—many for good reason. But one proposal that should not be controversial is the expansion of school choice programs for low-income families. This proposal should be supported by concerned politicians and citizens across the political spectrum.
For conservatives and libertarians, school choice programs are an obvious improvement over a situation in which government-run schools have a monopoly on public educational funding, despite the fact that, on average, private and religious schools consistently outperform public schools on all measures. If private and religious schools serve the public interest in educating children better than public schools do, it is unjust not to allow parents to use public educational funds at those schools. Furthermore, school choice programs help to bring our education policies more in line with the primacy of parental educational authority, a point that I will discuss in greater detail below.
For liberals, enabling children from low-income families to have access to some of the advantages enjoyed by the wealthy should be seen as an obvious gain with regard to equality of opportunity. In Washington, DC, for instance, participants in the Opportunity Scholarship Program (OSP) for low-income students had a high school graduation rate 21 percent higher than their peers, according to a 2013 study by Patrick Wolf from the University of Arkansas and colleagues. These findings led Wolf and his colleagues to conclude that the OSP is “one of the most effective urban dropout prevention programs yet witnessed.”
Yet many liberals worry that school choice programs will have a negative impact on those who are worst off by siphoning away resources from struggling public schools. On this point, it’s important to note that the funds for school choice programs are not necessarily funds that would have otherwise gone to public schools. Florida’s program—which seems to have been singled out by Trump as a model—is funded by donations from corporations or individuals, who in turn receive a reduction in state tax liability. In addition, a 2015 review of research on school choice programs published by the National Bureau of Economic Research noted that, far from hurting public schools, “competition induced by vouchers leads public schools to improve.” For example, a study of the Milwaukee voucher program conducted by Harvard economist Caroline Hoxby found that the increased competition from vouchers correlated with statistically significant improvements on test scores in the public schools most affected by competing voucher schools.
Moreover, it seems perverse to argue that some children should be denied a potential lifeline out of poverty for fear that the public schools might suffer as a result. By that same logic, we should deny school choice to wealthier families as well, forcing all to send their children to public schools. Yet the vast majority of Americans would be up in arms if such a policy were proposed. Rather than deny low-income families the same educational choice that wealthier families enjoy, we should seek other ways to improve the quality and efficiency of public schools—perhaps by eliminating some of the bureaucratic regulations that stymie reform efforts, including regulations in some districts that make it extremely difficult to fire incompetent teachers or even to use incentives for teaching excellence. (One recent study, for instance, found that in twelve of the twenty-five districts evaluated, it took at least two full years to fire a low-performing teacher. In Los Angeles and San Francisco, it took at least five years.)
Liberals should also support school choice for a deeper reason. For those who trumpet choice as the most sacred of all rights—especially in the aspects of human life related to sexuality and procreation—opposition to educational choice is puzzling. It is not clear why those most intimate and important choices related to procreation cease to deserve protection once a child is born. After all, procreation is not just about conceiving and giving birth to a child, but about raising that child to maturity. The right of parents to educate their children in line with their values and their judgments about the child’s best interests safeguards the intimacy of the parent-child relationship, and it is at least as important as rights that protect other sorts of intimate relationships.
Recognizing the special and unique bond between parents and children points to the most fundamental argument for school choice: parents, not the state, are the ones who have primary responsibility for their children’s education (a point that I have defended at length in previous essays). Why, then, should state-run schools be the default agents of education? Why, further, should low-income parents be forced to send their children to a public school despite their (often correct) judgment that the environment of that school will be harmful physically, morally, spiritually, or intellectually?
Of course, the state does have a legitimate interest in ensuring that children receive adequate education—not only academic education, but also education that prepares them to be responsible citizens in a diverse society. But there is overwhelming evidence indicating that private and religious schools often do a better job of imparting such education than public schools, particularly (in the case of religious schools) among the most disadvantaged. School choice also increases diversity by increasing minority enrollment in private schools.
Professors Margaret Brining and Nicole Garnett’s recent book, Lost Classroom, Lost Community, details how Catholic school closures in urban communities led to a community-wide increase in social disorders, including violent crime. For instance, they found that urban Chicago neighborhoods with an open Catholic school had 33-percent lower crime rates than neighborhoods in which a Catholic school had recently closed. A study of Philadelphia’s urban communities revealed similar results. School choice programs could help to prevent such devastating losses of social capital in the communities that need it most.
The reference to Catholic schools may bring to mind the concern that voucher programs are constitutionally suspect, especially since many voucher recipients choose to send their children to Catholic schools (due to their relatively low tuition compared to non-religious private schools). As a result, voucher programs may indirectly channel government educational funds to religious schools. In Zelman v. Simmons-Harris, the Supreme Court addressed this issue, deciding that Ohio’s voucher program did not run afoul of the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause because the funds were put at the disposal of parents, who then used those funds to send their children to a school of their choice.
The ruling nonetheless remains controversial, for many of the reasons put forth by the four dissenting justices. Justice Stevens, for instance, expressed concern about the fact that, in practice, the vast majority of parents who receive vouchers use them to send their children to a religious school. Yet if we look at vouchers as a matter of respecting the rights of parents to direct their children’s upbringing—including their right to choose a school that aligns with their values—this fact ceases to be problem. On the contrary, it should be considered a gain in terms of bringing policies in line with the primacy of parental educational authority.
There is no such thing as a completely value-neutral education. In the absence of vouchers, low-income parents are effectively forced to send their children to a public school, even if they object to the values directly or indirectly promoted in that school. And given that public schools are constitutionally required to be non-religious, the fact that only public schools can receive public educational funding effectively means that the government is favoring non-religion over religion. This places a substantial burden on religious parents, many of whom believe that they have a serious religious responsibility for the religious education of their children, by making it financially difficult or even impossible to send their children to a religious school.
Therefore, turning Stevens’s argument on its head, we could say that the public schools’ monopoly on public educational funds is actually in tension with both of the First Amendment’s religion clauses. The absence of some sort of voucher program (at least for low-income students) is in tension with the Establishment Clause because it promotes secularism in children’s formal education. It is also in tension with the Free Exercise Clause because it places a substantial burden on the ability of parents to fulfill one of their most serious religious duties.
Among the multitude of studies carried out on the overall impact of school choice programs, one finding is consistent: parents and students who participate in these programs report significantly higher levels of school satisfaction in comparison with control groups, according to a 2010 report of the National Center for Education Evaluation. Surely one of the reasons for this increased satisfaction is that school choice programs empower conscientious parents to send their children to a school that best meets the needs of their children. And since parents usually know their children better than anyone else and want their children to thrive more than anyone else, it makes sense that children will usually be happier in a school of their parents’ choosing. Although school choice will not magically cure all the ills of the American educational system, empowering low-income parents to choose the school that they believe is best suited to the needs of their children is, in and of itself, a significant gain.
Trump’s agenda gives liberals and conservatives plenty of things to fight about. But school choice should not be one of them. On this issue, let’s set aside partisanship and unite to provide disadvantaged children with the educational opportunities they deserve.
Melissa Moschella is Assistant Professor of Philosophy at the Catholic University of America, and author of To Whom Do Children Belong? Parental Rights, Civic Education and Children’s Autonomy (Cambridge University Press, 2016).