Too many liberals are on the wrong side of the school choice debate

We liberals see our public schools as the centerpiece of America’s “melting pot” society. Religiously divisive societies like Northern Ireland and Lebanon worry us. Teachers unions are generally applauded as providing needed job protection for committed professionals who are helping to shape the lives of our children. These beliefs combine to cause all too many liberals automatically to oppose school choice plans that would enable more low-income families to choose religious or other private schools for their children. That’s too bad, and it need not be that way.

Liberals certainly think that our society should pay special attention to the needs of low-income families, often non-white families. And it is clear to everyone that all too many of the children from these families are now poorly served by conventional public schools. To remedy this problem, liberals typically put their faith in the internal reform of public education. In the meantime, however, liberals with means seem content for other people’s children to remain stuck in public schools that they would never tolerate for their own children.

Lots of low-income families also are committed to public education, and if their local schools are bad, their focus is on making them better. But other low-income families would like to choose something else for their children. Surely liberals are predisposed to respect the judgments of all families, rich or poor, as to what they believe is in the best interest of their children.

Encouragingly, in large parts of America, school choice has now become a central feature of public education. Charter schools, magnet schools, inter-district transfer programs, and the like all enroll children on the basis of family choice. A number of school districts have even converted their entire enrollment system into a family choice plan that no longer bases assignment on the location of the family’s residence. Well-to-do families have traditionally been able to “choose” their children’s public schools by deciding where to live — especially in upper-income suburban enclaves which offer good public education to which low-income families are realistically denied access. The newer sorts of public school choice arrangements provide wider opportunities to low-income families, and liberals like President Obama support them.

Charter schools may threaten teachers unions, and they are often managed by entrepreneurs, sometimes even profit-making organizations. But they are still public schools — open to all (by lottery, if applications exceed seats available), free of charge, and free from religion.

This is exactly the problem, however, for low-income families who want faith-based schools for their children. School choice programs, such as Milwaukee’s voucher program and Florida’s tax credit scholarship program, target these families. Through them, tens of thousands of families now can opt for something they could not otherwise afford. Most other wealthy nations also subsidize that sort of choice. Yet, American liberals are the most outspoken opponents of such plans.

This stance is inconsistent with fundamental liberal beliefs. Liberals are all for “choice” when it comes to abortion and want the government to pay for abortions sought by poor women. Why can’t more liberals see the desirability of fully extending choice to low-income families when it comes to education?

Some liberals persist in arguing that “common” public schools are necessary because they are society’s way of transmitting democracy and tolerance to everyone. This is a romanticized picture of what actually happens in public schools. Moreover, America’s private schools don’t teach intolerance. To the contrary, research shows that their students become as or more tolerant than their public school-going counterparts. Indeed, it is the closing off of private schools to those who cannot afford them that interferes with parents’ fundamental exercise of their free-speech rights when they are unable to select the educational values their children are taught.

Contrast America’s system of higher education. The federal government provides “Pell Grants” to low-income students regardless of whether they attend public or private colleges. The great private universities all provide additional tuition assistance to low-income applicants and many of the best admit on a needs-blind basis. It is left to students and their parents to decide whether or not they wish to attend a faith-affiliated college.

Liberals who personally care about religion and who send their children to religious schools often seem indifferent to the religious beliefs of parents who are too poor to make the same choice for their children. Giving vouchers or tax credit-funded scholarships to children from low-income families should be a “free exercise” issue with civil liberties organizations. Instead, these programs are miscast as an “establishment” of religion. But the right kind of school choice plan no more breaches the “wall of separation” between church and state than does the current income tax deductibility of contributions to religious organizations.

Of course, school choice by itself is not a “silver bullet” that will magically cure all our educational woes. But school choice plans can help low-income families obtain something they want for their children that even the most liberal charter school plan cannot provide — religious education. My wife and I are not religious and we never sent (or wanted to send) our daughter to a religious school. But we could have afforded it if it had been our family preference. I consider myself a liberal, and I find it anything but liberal to automatically oppose choice plans that could empower low-income families to select for their children from among the options I had for mine.

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BY Stephen D. Sugarman

Professor of law, University of California at Berkeley, author with John E. Coons of Private Wealth and Public Education and Education by Choice


I am curious to know whether you believe private schools should be required to accept students who wish to pay their tuition using public funding. I would hope the answer would be “no.” Money always comes with strings attached, and I think that once a school begins accepting public tuition dollars, it is only a matter of time before the government wants to have a say in the school’s admissions standards, curriculum, etc. If a private school is already at capacity with enrollees who do not need to use public funds, I can’t imagine such a school willingly accepting these students. Only schools who are on the verge of closing their doors due to low enrollment would have an interest in giving up autonomy in exchange for additional bodies. Would you have private schools lose this autonomy involuntarily?

PS – I disagree with your comparison of public scholarships for religious schools with the tax deductibility of donations to religious organizations. The former would utilize public dollars to fund an objective, while the latter simply allows a private donor to not be taxed on personal income they have chosen not to keep for themselves. In the former case, the government plays an active role, and in the latter, the government is passive. This is a significant difference.

Bravo! I too find myself at odds with my liberal beliefs and the public educaiton system and it is refreshing to know that others see how illogical that is. Liberal and Democratic does not mean that I am for the status quo.

I am agnostic and have no desire to send my children to a faith based school. But if I expect tolerance for my non-beliefs from the religious right then I must also respect the other side. If am am allowed to choose no relgion why should they not be allowed to choose a religion. It comes down to a fundamental right to raise your children in your own way. I value personal freedom more than I value protecting the utopian dream of public education for all. Which might I ad is failing a large number of our children despite the idea that we are educating ALL. So exacting what are we protecting? Dismal results based on a faulty dream so we can say we did our best. Sorry that’s not good enough for me and quite frankly it shouldn’t be good enough for anyone.

My favorite quote is …. The defination of Insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result. mmmm that sounds an awful lot like public education to me.

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