The Ultimate Rationale for School Choice

The following speech was delivered before the Traverse City Rotary Club on Sept. 2, 2003.

On behalf of my colleagues at the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, good afternoon and thank you for inviting me to share a few brief thoughts on the history and future of public education.

As I begin, I am reminded of the hazard of exceeding my time limit by a second grader who once wrote a paper on the life of Socrates. It read as follows:

"Socrates. Socrates talked a lot. They poisoned him."

Stay Engaged

Receive our weekly emails!

With our 2nd grader’s words of wisdom in mind, I’d like to start with a brief description of the Mackinac Center for Public Policy — a research and educational institute headquartered in Midland. The most common question I am asked about the Mackinac Center is, "What does it do?"

The short answer is that we seek to raise public awareness about a variety of policy issues. We do this from a free market, limited government perspective with the goal of enhancing civil society, preserving liberty, and encouraging individual responsibility and good government. We are a non-partisan organization.

Accomplishing this task requires us to research a variety of public policy issues that impact the economy. We analyze data, research and write studies, publish commentaries, we speak at events like these and we interact with the media. On average, in fact, the Mackinac Center’s name appears more than 20 times per week in Michigan print media alone.

If you are familiar with our work, you know that one of the public policy issues we devote considerable time and resources to addressing is public education — the topic I am here to speak on today. The core of most of our education reform work is focused on school choice.

Of course, the words "school choice" mean different things to different people. When the Mackinac Center for Public Policy uses the term "school choice," we simply mean this: That all parents should have the power to choose the best and safest schools for their children, period. Using free market economic principles as the basis for this position, we believe that such policies would result in the most choices for parents at the highest possible quality with the greatest possibility of incentives for good teachers.

If you are an education professional or even an education watcher, you know that school choice is perhaps the most significant trend in public education during the past decade or so. This trend has resulted in several public policy changes I will briefly touch on to lay the foundation for some historical thoughts on public education.

It was during the past 10 years that charter schools first appeared. A charter school is a new kind of public school that is — to use the U.S. Department of Education’s definition — "deregulated and free of direct administrative control by the government." In 1993, Michigan became the eighth state to enact a charter school law. Since then, 27 other states and the District of Columbia have also enacted charter school laws. Presently charter schools educate about 4 percent of Michigan’s 1.7 million school-aged children, many of whom are low-income, minority students.

Another emerging trend in school choice is that of vouchers — a sort of state issued token redeemable at a school of the parents’ choosing. As of April of this year, when Colorado enacted a voucher law, there are six states that offer vouchers under certain conditions. Significant research is beginning to demonstrate that increased competition from vouchers tends to raise the performance of all schools.

Finally, another public policy reform that I believe is in the emerging stages of a future trend is the concept of tuition tax credits — a financial reform that allows parents and/or businesses to direct part of their own tax liability to the schools of their choice. Presently various credits exist at the federal level for college tuition and at the state level in six states for K-12 tuition and/or expenses.

While these trends are due in part to changing public attitudes toward the way we view public education at the grassroots level, they are also due to policy changes from the top down.

One such change occurred in the form of a decision by the U.S. Supreme Court in June of 2002 that has been called the most significant education ruling by the high court since "Brown v. The Board of Education."

In the Cleveland voucher case the Court said it was constitutional for children in a financial-need voucher program to use vouchers to attend religious schools. The court ruled that even though money from the program was flowing predominantly to Catholic schools, it is not a violation of the establishment clause because the voucher was created to benefit the student — not a religious group. In this sense, vouchers have been likened to veteran’s benefits under the G.I. Bill, which allowed veterans to attend a college of their choice — even a religious college.

Another potentially landmark decision will be argued before the Supreme Court this December. In the case Locke v. Davey, the Supreme Court will rule on the whether Mr. Josh Davey, a college student, is entitled to a scholarship composed of taxpayer funds which he was awarded but which the state rescinded after it found out that he was studying to be a minister at a religious college. The state of Washington used a provision in its constitution called a "Blaine amendment" as the basis for denying the student the money. I will share more on the history and significance of Blaine amendments in a few minutes.

To the uninitiated, the trend toward school choice may look like a recent phenomenon. But it actually finds its roots in the history of American education. I would like to share a few brief snapshots of that history with you today.

Although we have a cultural tendency to talk about education issues by focusing on such things as standardized test scores, the black-white achievement gap (which is actually a chasm), and per-pupil spending, etc., I would submit to you that there is a much more elemental quandary facing our American system of education. This quandary is very simply summed up with one question: "Whose role is it to say what the Truth is?"

If the wording of the question seems esoteric, we could substitute the question "Whose role is it to say which worldview is correct?" to mean the same thing. Regardless of how the question is phrased, it is inescapable that truth — or worldview, if you prefer — is the philosophic planet around which all academic subjects have their orbit. If you doubt this, consider the turmoil in school caused by public debate around the following questions:

The origins of mankind, history & ethnocentric perspective, human sexual orientation and activity, the definition of when human life begins, freedom of speech, values & ethics, what words are correct to use and what words are incorrect, observing religious tradition and practice in public, the politics of government and economics, art, the environment, and so on.

Without getting hung up on any particular one of these topics in and of themselves, it is crucial to note that modern public education is chiefly a function carried out by the State (by which I mean state with a capital "S"). This has created a society in which the State, through the public school, has taken on the role of defining what the Truth is in every one of the subject areas I mentioned, and others as well.

What is most fascinating about the struggle over which Truth will be taught in our public schools is a question that also has deep roots in the history of our public education system — in fact, the very origins of the modern day system was as much about the question of teaching children the Truth-from-whose-perspective as it was about academics.

Horace Mann, the founder of the modern day American public school system, encountered much political opposition in his day from many Protestant clergy who felt that education should remain the province of the Protestant church.

Although Mann eventually succeeded in making schooling the responsibility of government, he could not — as a man limited by the times in which he lived — expunge the Protestant worldview from early public schools. Being Unitarian, what Mann settled for instead was a sort of generic amalgamation of Protestant doctrine, which remained entrenched in the public system for about the next 130 years or so, or until the early 1960’s.

Although many people refer back to those first 130 years as representing the ideal for which our present day public school system should strive to return, there is some interesting history that shows the danger of the State being given the role of defining what the Truth is. The history I am referring to is the arrival of Catholic immigrants to the United States in large numbers, especially those of the mid-19th century fleeing the Irish potato famine. Whether one is an adherent of the Protestant, Catholic, Jewish, Islamic or some other worldview, it is a history worth knowing.

America at the time was predominantly Protestant in belief. This means that although there were divisions along denominational lines, the prevailing worldview of most people was the Protestant worldview. And more importantly, where education was concerned, it was that worldview (and no other) that should be taught to students. This was a pretty good deal — if you were Protestant.

When the Catholic immigrants began to arrive, they attempted to assimilate into public schools, only to find their beliefs discriminated against. The Protestants used a Bible that was different than the one in which the Catholics believe, along with differences in doctrine, models of church governance, form of prayer, etc.

By the 1870s open discrimination against the Catholics was not only commonplace, open bigotry was socially acceptable. A political cartoon of the time reveals the prevailing attitude: Crocodile-like priests dressed in priestly vestments shown coming out the river while a young school teacher stands with a protestant Bible tucked in his jacket defending the hapless school children. This cartoon published in 1875 and many like it, published in Harper’s Weekly, reveal the degree to which the question "Whose role is it to say what the Truth is?" was being asked by our society within the first 30 years of the founding of the American public school system.

Unfortunately, the public debate sometimes escalated into violence. One such incident is known as the Philadelphia Bible Riots of 1844, in which a three-day fight between Catholic and Protestants resulted in injuries, destruction of property and even a few deaths. The Protestants’ primary fear seems to be that the Catholics would revolt and claim the embryonic United States for the Pope.

After decades of harassment, the Catholics began forming their own schools, eventually seeking tax money in support of their right to educate their children around the Truth as they apprehended it. The Protestants, of course, were against this too. They felt that the State should teach all children the Protestant worldview — regardless of the parent’s desire or orientation. There was litigation, of course, and eventually, the Catholics won the legal recognition of their right to run their own schools — but the resentments ran deep.

Such commonplace resentments eventually led Congressman James G. Blaine, Speaker of the House from 1869 to 1875, to propose the following amendment to the establishment clause of the U.S. constitution. You will recognize the first part of the proposal as the first amendment. The second part was Blaine’s plan:

"No State shall make any law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; and no money raised by taxation in any State for the support of public schools, or derived from any public fund therefore, nor any public lands devoted thereto, shall ever be under the control of any religious sect; nor shall any money so raised or lands so devoted be divided between religious sects or denominations."

And just to make sure there wouldn’t be any confusion, the Republican-controlled Senate added the provision that the amendment should never be interpreted to exclude the Protestant Bible from Public schools.

(It is also important to note that the word "sect" in 19th century America did not mean what it means today. It was codeword of the time for "Catholic.")

The Blaine amendment narrowly failed along party lines in the Senate but variations of it were included in 14 of the constitutions of states that were admitted to the union after 1875. (Michigan entered the union in 1837, so our constitution does not contain a Blaine amendment. It does, however, contain a similar amendment, which I will describe in a minute.) Although it failed at the federal level, the Blaine amendment was ultimately successful in preventing public funds from helping to educate children in parochial schools.

This arrangement was satisfactory for the Protestants, who continued to rely on the State to teach Truth from their worldview — that is until the 1960s when the Supreme Court began issuing a series of rulings that to the present day have all but expunged the Protestant worldview from the classroom.

I like to say that the American Protestants began to learn in the 1960s what American Catholics learned in the 1860s — that the state is ultimately no friend of any version of the Truth other than its own. Unfortunately, as we all know, the State’s version of Truth is one that ultimately leads us toward the most Orwellian of possible outcomes.

Surprisingly, much of the discrimination of the 1860s is unfortunately still with us today. Though, as I mentioned, we do not have a Blaine amendment in the Michigan constitution, we do have an even more restrictive provision called article 8, section 2, which was added by referendum in 1970, almost 100 years after Blaine. Rather than read the provision to you, I will simply say that the group who brought it to the ballot called itself "Counsel Against Parochiaid" which in and of itself reveals that it comes from the same motivation and purpose as Blaine.

In the present day, as America continues to become a melting pot of refugees and immigrants from around the world, the debate over Truth has expanded beyond Protestant v. Catholic to include many other worldviews. One of the most observable aspects of that debate centers on whether English should be taught as the primary language in schools. In the end, however, whether personal worldview is Protestant, Catholic, Jewish, Islamic, or some other, I think we could agree that it’s not in our best interest to have the State in the role of saying what the Truth is.

The reason I say this is because the greatest thing the next generation needs to learn is not math, language or science. What they need to understand is that they have a responsibility for preserving the freedom given to us by our founding fathers for the generation that will come after them. Continuing to invest the State with the power to say what Truth is poses the greatest threat to that freedom.

So what, then, is the answer to the problem at hand?

The Mackinac Center believes the best way to answer this question is to turn the responsibility for educating children back to the parents — that is to create unlimited school choice. By doing so, we will at least create the possibility of preserving our liberty, rather than continuing to rely on the state to define Truth for us. To that end, the Center is your servant, working to create a civil society in which all parents are free to choose the best and safest schools for their children.

# # #

Note: Brian Carpenter is director of leadership development for the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, a research and educational institute headquartered in Midland, Mich.