Educational Choice Requires New Ways of Thinking

In America, choice in such things as the colleges we attend, the foods we eat, the places where we work, and the stores we patronize is taken for granted, but when it comes to K-12 education, the very suggestion of it generates powerful opposition.

Allowing parents greater choice among public schools is controversial enough, but giving parents the option of sending their children to private schools with a publicly-funded voucher or scholarship is treated in some vocal quarters as heretical and downright anti-social. In June, when President Bush proposed a pilot program of scholarship assistance for poor and middle-income students to use at the public or private schools of their choice, he was loudly denounced by an assortment of union leaders and congressional liberals.

This contrasts with the situation in Holland, a nation widely regarded as possessing a disproportionate number of the best schools in Europe and, not at all by coincidence, the most highly evolved system in the world of parental choice among schools. Educational freedom is a right enshrined in the Dutch Constitution of 1917, which guarantees a minimum of government oversight. Over the years, legislation has assured full public funding for any school parents may choose, so long as relatively unobtrusive enrollment and quality requirements are met.

In a recent year, according to findings published by the U. S. Department of Education in a 1989 book entitled Choice of Schools in Six Nations, approximately 70 percent of Dutch elementary schoolchildren were attending schools operated by private organizations--both religious and secular groups. Dutch public schools, meanwhile, assign attendance by district but a written notice from parents who want to cross district lines is all it takes to waive the residency requirement.

Even in neighboring Canada, a degree of parental choice in education far greater than exists in the U.S. has been public policy for decades. Most Canadian parents who want, for instance, a distinctly Catholic education for their children, are able to obtain a publicly subsidized one, and sometimes even within a public school.

Opponents of choice in the United States cite the Constitution's First Amendment as an ironclad prohibition of public funding of religious schools: "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof..." But it hardly constitutes "establishment of religion" if public funds go not to the school but to the parents, who then use them to pay for education at the public or private school of their choice.

In its 1983 Mueller v. Allen decision, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld a Minnesota program which allows a deduction for state income tax purposes of tuition, textbooks and transportation expenses for both secondary and elementary schools, public or private (including religious). The Court held that the deduction actually had a secular purpose of "ensuring that the state's citizenry is well educated." Furthermore, the Court held that the state had a strong interest in ensuring the survival of both religious and non-religious private schools because they provided competition to public schools.

Millions of Americans went to college under the GI Bill, and many of them chose religious colleges and even seminaries. Other state and federal student aid programs still on the books have worked in similar fashion: government grants go to the student, who then chooses the college or university--public or private--that offers the programs and courses he or she wants.

Moreover, as educator Martha Brown pointed out in The Wall Street Journal on June 25, it is often the case that public school teachers take graduate courses at religious institutions. "Is it equitable," Brown asks rhetorically, "to deny the same right to their students?" She says the lament that "Choice will destroy the public schools" is much the same as the old East German argument that "If we take down the wall, they'll all leave."

No one argues that welfare or Social Security recipients should not be allowed to put a portion of their income in their church collection plate on Sunday mornings, or that their doing so constitutes an establishment of religion by the state. Moreover, no one has ever claimed that the food stamp program would work better if recipients were required to use their food stamps only at government grocery stores.

Ultimately, there exists two fundamental hurdles in revamping American education in such a way as to maximize parental choice. One of those hurdles is the state religion of public education itself, which has hardened into a siege mentality that puts the survival of the status quo ahead of the goal of an educated citizenry. It's a mentality that says the system is more important than the kids. That must be combated by raising public consciousness about the inherent virtue in a competitive, responsive, and entrepreneurial method of delivering education and the inevitable vice of politicized public monopolies.

The other hurdle is constructing a choice system that does not invite government intrusion into private schooling. Subjecting private schools to the same certification, tenure, or curriculum requirements of public schools, for instance, would stifle their creativity and eventually push them to perform no better than their public counterparts. As bad as the present system is, it's probably preferable to one in which the distinctiveness of private schools is sacrificed to make all schools look and perform like today's public ones.

Nothing about education dictates that monopoly works better than competition, and choice advocates have plenty of evidence from experience to prove that point. That won't make selling choice easy, however, because convincing millions of people to look at old problems in new ways is much like the old adage about old dogs and new tricks. Choice advocates have a lot of educating to do.