Is school choice a means or an end?

The choice for every child will be made by some adult. The only question is which authority will impose its will on the child of the not-so-rich; will it be the parent or the stranger state?
The choice for every child will be made by some adult. The only question is which authority will impose its will on the child of the not-so-rich; will it be the parent or the stranger state?

Up to a certain point schooling is an example of the free market. Any family with financial resources or the ability to home school can choose where and how children are educated. However, schooling is a compulsory good and the forms of education that satisfy the parent’s duty are limited.

Moreover, parental authority over schooling is an instrument to be judged by its effect upon the goals to be served. One of its goals may be the healthy development, not merely of the child, but of the parent – in turn enhancing the family’s possible contribution to specific social goals. Suppose one decides that a 7-hour-a-day, 12-year disengagement of the parent from the child is a very bad thing for the social order. Suppose it teaches parents to leave responsibility to government strangers and invites the child to view the role of parent as an insipid condition to be avoided. What deadly disease of contemporary society does this image identify? Would responsible parental choice of school be at least part of its necessary social medicine? In the short run or the long run or neither? Perhaps this is the kind of question about ends that a fixation on economic means tends to obscure. The American Center for School Choice exists to ensure the conversation about parental choice includes serious discussion of both ends and means.

To the extent that any market is unregulated or “free” it is left so for the enhancement of certain ends that are approved by our society and its 51 constitutional governments. One of these ends is rather immediate; before all else, the free market is an instrument to achieve the personal objectives of individuals who exchange goods and services or make promises to do so. Promises create contracts, which are enforced (or not) by courts, which are an arm of formal government and decide whether certain bargains are illegal or ineffectual – because there are other ends that can override the aims of individuals. An example is an agreement for delivery of illegal drugs or (in California) the livers of force-fed geese. The free market has these various limits because society has purposes other than realizing individual choices.

Although contracts for schooling are – up to a point – relatively free, what is peculiar about the market in schooling is the law and reality that the individual most affected by the free choice has none at all himself. Nature has decided that Junior’s intellectual fate is in the hands of one adult or another; some older person will decide. If schooling is a free market, it is not his freedom. Indeed, he is the subject matter of a contract between two adults – parent and educator. He is in effect a valuable animal who is being farmed out to the greenest pastures the parent can find and afford.

Society and its laws thus recognize the reality that the choice of schools – if it be a “free” market – is a unique species of choice, having objectives that extend beyond just the child for whom the choice is made.

Insofar as school choice is a free act, it is also an act of authority by some adult. As such, at least one of its major purposes as a social instrument is not merely achieving the preference of the chooser, though that is achieved. It is, in addition, the welfare of both the individual for whom the school is chosen plus an array of social goals not immediately at stake in other choices, such as in the decision to purchase groceries or a sofa. Our society’s continuance depends upon the nurturing of adults who are in some ways the same and yet also different. We want them all to become virtuous – but in ways that leave them autonomous humans who can differ from one another – who can take their place in the more truly free market of ideas.

To a certain extent America has achieved that goal. Measured in specific ways one class of citizens nears the ideal. They tend to be literate, busy, college-bound, law abiding and reasonably concerned for others; they tend to marry, then to have children who seem in general to follow suit. Parents choose schools for them by moving near their own preferred public school or by paying tuition. If their choice proves a disappointment, they switch and maybe learn by their experience.

The other class consists of parents with relatively lighter purses. These cannot afford to pay; thus they forfeit their power of choice to strangers who work for a state which may or may not offer the parents much choice even within the public system. And, if they should want a religious school, they are out of luck, unless they live in those still relatively few places which value a fuller free market sufficiently to provide parents the subsidy needed to play in the game.

What exactly is the social purpose thought to be served by withholding choice from less affluent parents – by abandoning the market that is obviously so successful for the well-off? There is none except the plausible claim of 19th Century pundits who built this great separation machine; they believed (and their descendants do yet) that children of lower-class citizens – then mostly Catholics – were in need of the state’s custody five days a week to impart those right ideas that more established and dependable families were able to transmit to their children in schools of their own choosing. Those among the poor who gradually got schooled into full citizenship would – it was predicted – join the enlightened and at last deserve a place in the free market of ideas.

In America today, this classist instrument of civic virtue is still – among many public educators – quite orthodox as a tool of social order. Its Greek roots were even more statist. Plato wanted all children turned over to expert “guardians”; no parent was even to know his own child. In America Plato gets a good deal of what he wanted. Our system’s defenders seem convinced the old Greek was right – at least about unmonied American parents. Some deserve our trust, but very few. In fact, from the harsh rhetoric against parental choice one senses an underlying view that the Supreme Court was wrong in saying in its 1925 Pierce decision that “the child is not a mere creature of the state,” at least for the purposes of education. For even in wealthier suburban school districts, the ability of parents to choose the school their child attends is often severely circumscribed and the flexibility to transfer to another school across school district borders is at the whim of state authority. There seems to be not only a right set of ideas for their children, (and it is government that guards and transmits them,) but also a right location for their children to receive those ideas. Universal choice would spawn a Pandora’s menagerie of dangerous notions about the good life. To extend the free market to these families would be an investment in corruption and decline.

Just how much there really is to this aristocratic argument is hard to say. It is not crazy. Parents – even rich parents – can make awful errors; private schools can work personal calamities at which the free market then shrugs. And, worse, in such a market the choosers are not the only losers. They impose their own mis-visions on a helpless third party without his consent. This is freedom?

No, it’s not. And the arguments for parental choice should begin, at last, to recognize this distinction which is very real if, in the end, irrelevant. The choice for every child will be made by some adult. The only question is which authority will impose its will on the child of the not-so-rich; will it be the parent or the stranger state? In my judgment the many arguments for parental authority are decisive; but I will spare the reader and only note – apart from gross cases of child abuse – one is hard pressed to find a similar example in American society where a stranger working for the government can routinely make life-altering decisions for a child. We need to give more consideration to the implications for the parent and parental authority within the family before we strip away this fundamental decision about schooling. The disengagement, despair, and hopelessness that marks too many families is not unaffected by the parents’ inability to choose a quality school for their child. Our society must actively oppose the poison of helplessness for the family watching a child grow up poorly educated, yet realizing they have little or no capacity to change that sorry fate.

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BY John E. Coons

John E. Coons is a professor of law, emeritus, University of California at Berkeley, and author with Stephen D. Sugarman of "Private Wealth and Public Education" and "Education by Choice."