Regardless of where you stand on the prudence of anti-CRT legislation—and even regardless of your views on the merits of CRT itself—the controversy over CRT highlights the need for genuine school choice by unmasking any pretensions to public school “neutrality.” Public school curricula have never been ideologically neutral. But with the advent of CRT, any attempt to maintain even a semblance of neutrality on controversial topics like race, sex, or gender has been abandoned.
Especially in these circumstances, therefore, the fact that public schools enjoy a monopoly on public educational funding is profoundly unjust, a violation of the fundamental right of parents to direct the education of their children. While this right has been legally recognized by the Supreme Court in Meyer v. Nebraska and Pierce v. Society of Sisters, it is a basic moral right that would exist even in the absence of law or government. This right is grounded on the deep and enduring bond between parents and children, and the serious parental obligations to which that bond gives rise.
Public schools’ monopoly on public educational funding violates parental rights because it means that low-income parents who are unable to pay for private schooling or to homeschool have no choice but to send their children to the public school, even if they reasonably believe that the school environment or curriculum is harmful. If we think it would be terribly unjust to force parents to place an immune-compromised child at risk of serious illness by sending that child to school during a class COVID (or flu) outbreak, wouldn’t it be equally unjust to force parents to send their child to a school with a morally, psychologically, or intellectually harmful curriculum?
Beyond Public School Monopolies
This injustice can be partially alleviated by allowing parents to exempt their children from particular classes or activities to which they have an objection. (Contrary to McAuliffe’s claim and to the Ninth Circuit’s ruling in Fields, both legally and morally, the right of parents to direct their children’s education clearly does extend beyond the schoolhouse door.) Yet exemptions are insufficient when parents object to an ideology that is infused throughout the curriculum and school environment. In those cases, the only way for parents to protect their children from potentially harmful ideological indoctrination is to send them to another school or to homeschool them. For many parents with limited means, however, these are not feasible options. And even for parents who can afford these options, it is still unjust that they should have to bear this additional financial burden, which functions like a fine on parents with conscientious objections to the school’s dominant ideology.
Because parents, not the state, are the ones with primary educational responsibility and authority, it would be more just for public education funding to be channeled through parental choice to pay for tuition at whichever school parents think best for their child (be it public or private), or to pay for other educational expenses like homeschool curricula. While there is a genuine state interest in ensuring that children receive an education that enables them to be law-abiding and productive citizens—and thus a reason to provide public educational funding—there is no reason why that funding should go only to schools run by the government (especially when many of those schools are failing to teach children even the most basic academic skills).
Even the influential liberal thinker John Stuart Mill was strongly opposed to state provision of education. In his famous work On Liberty, Mill argued that “a general State education is a mere contrivance for molding people to be exactly like one another.” Mill believed that, at most, state-controlled education should be “one among many competing experiments,” but never the only publicly funded option.
Benefits of Vouchers
Surprisingly—at least for those who unreasonably treat school choice as a partisan issue—critical race theorist Derrick Bell also supported vouchers, charter schools, and other initiatives that would expand educational choice. In his book Silent Covenants: Brown v. Board of Education and the Unfulfilled Hopes for Racial Reform, he proposes these school choice measures as a way to provide effective education for students in failing inner-city school districts, which are disproportionately populated by black students. Indeed, private and charter schools often significantly outperform public schools, particularly in the most underprivileged neighborhoods. This is especially true when considering not only standardized test scores (which do not predict long-term educational or professional attainment), but also factors like improved grades and increased student motivation. Research indicates that these latter measures are much more important for long-term outcomes like high school graduation, college attendance, and future earnings.
The work of Margaret Brinig and Nicole Garnett has also shown that Catholic schools in inner-city neighborhoods benefit not only their students but also the community as a whole, building social capital and reducing violent crime. These positive effects are lost when, for financial reasons, these schools are forced to close. By making it financially feasible for families to enroll their children, voucher programs would also help to keep these schools open (or create demand for new ones) to the great benefit of the disadvantaged communities they serve.
Once we understand these facts about how school choice programs can serve as a lifeline for the most disadvantaged students and their communities, it’s no surprise that racial justice advocates like Derrick Bell would be in favor of them. School choice should be a no-brainer for anyone concerned not only with ideological indoctrination in the public schools, but also with the alleviation of systemic injustice and inequality.
A model of the sort of school choice policy I am proposing was recently signed into law in West Virginia. Beginning in the 2022–23 school year, West Virginia parents who do not send their children to public school will receive $4,600 per school-age child to use for private or homeschool expenses. (Other states—including Arizona, Florida, North Carolina, Tennessee, Mississippi, Missouri, and New Hampshire—already have similar laws, though they are less expansive than West Virginia’s.)
If more states followed West Virginia’s example in promoting genuine school choice, public school curriculum wars about CRT, sex, gender, and other controversial issues could be largely avoided, or at least limited to the (more appropriate) local level. The introduction of genuine competition will make schools and school boards accountable to parents, giving them real financial incentives to listen and respond to parents’ concerns. Perhaps in particularly “woke” neighborhoods, public schools might still implement the tenets of CRT, but it would no longer be a topic of national controversy when dissenting parents could use their voucher funds to send their children to another school or to homeschool them. On the other hand, in more conservative neighborhoods, “woke” parents who want their children to learn CRT-inspired ideas in school can use their voucher funds to send their children to a liberal private school.
The most likely result of widespread voucher programs, however, will be the elimination of at least the most overt forms of ideological indoctrination in schools. For voucher programs have the great virtue of making public schools genuinely accountable to parents. And, as the recent Virginia gubernatorial election shows, most parents—even liberal parents—want schools to set ideology aside and focus on teaching their children basic academic skills.
The time is ripe to finally end the unjust monopoly that public schools have on public educational funding. Doing so would enable parents of all social classes to fully exercise their right to direct their children’s education and make schools genuinely accountable to parents. Concerned citizens and elected officials should view parents’ dissatisfaction with public schools as an opportunity to push for deeper solutions that address these problems on a more fundamental level. Legislation giving all parents genuine school choice would be a great place to start.