School choice in a nutshell


Proposals for government subsidy of the school choices of parents, in amounts tailored to family need, have attracted support across the political spectrum. This consensus is grounded on a variety of mutually consistent theses; paradoxically, the individual champion of school choice has too often treated his own favorite argument as so manifestly superior that it tends to dominate and trivialize all others. It could, therefore, be a useful mental (and political) exercise for advocates of choice to evaluate the full gallery of its claims and to consider whether a more eclectic, inclusive and harmonious intellectual sketch of the movement might be prudent for all in pursuit of this common goal.

Toward that end I here offer a brief catechism of what appear to me to be the central reasons for the economic empowerment of all parents in amounts sufficient to decide among all schools, private and public, that participate in the system. Catechisms, are, of course, also argument, but I shall keep this to a minimum. That my categories overlap in their persuasions only reinforces my sense of the mischief in allowing separation and insularity in our argumentation. I strongly urge others to draft their own litanies – pro or con—or to prune this effort of mine.

  1. Choice is the source of human responsibility, the pre-condition of maturity and goodness. We grow morally, and spiritually, only by specific consequential acts of the will. For parents of every class and every aspiration for their child, the liberty and duty of selecting the educator are the occasion of growth as a person. In turn, the child’s observation of that parental decision as an act of duty, freedom and authority sends a message of the moral dignity that is possible to all of us as adults. By contrast, America’s historical disempowerment of the ordinary parent in favor of a professional school elite is a psychological disaster for both parent and child — hence for society.
  2. The experience of personal responsibility in so serious a matter evokes the virtues of citizenship; conversely, that of displacement of the deciding individual by government is poisonous, both to the responsible self and to the society that has deposed him.
  3. School choice is a powerful medium of free expression for the parent, realized through the agency of the chosen school and its message.
  4. The sole material exception to the broad authority of the American parent is the conscription of the child of the lower-income family for education by unchosen strangers in a state school. This selective impairment of human responsibility by economic class – this gross disequalization — is a civic embarrassment and an Achilles heel for the system in court.
  5. Choice is an invitation to a cordial diversity of mind and spirit wholly congenial to the intellectual and social freedom preached by our political sages as a primary virtue of our history and culture — in particular the freedoms guaranteed in the speech and religion clauses of the 1st Amendment and parallel assurances in state constitutions.
  6. School choice is a constitutional right, cemented in our jurisprudence (Pierce vs. Society of Sisters). Its unnecessary frustration by The State for families of limited wealth will one day be challenged in our highest court.
  7. The parent’s right to choose is, at the same time, a duty to the child, hence a right of the latter. The child himself has a strong constitutional claim to his own parents’ free decision.
  8. Consumer choice could make teaching a true profession, creating a personal bond of contract between the teacher and the family that has freely chosen that school, hence that teacher.
  9. Systems of school choice, properly designed, could control the public cost of education. Private schools, on average, are more efficient and spend less for superior results with similar children.
  10. Competition would encourage either the transformation or disappearance of the typically insipid American school of education.
  11. School choice appears to raise test scores; at worst it does not lower them.
  12. Choice is strongly favored by parents of every economic class.

Criticism would be appreciated.