Some religious schools teach that God created the world and question the assumptions of evolution. And therefore you should oppose vouchers.
That’s the gist of an article by Politico reporter Stephanie Simon on the growth of parental choice in education. Simon writes that taxpayers will “bankroll” nearly $1 billion in tuition at K-12 private schools, some of which teach that, in her words, “much of modern biology, geology and cosmology is a web of lies.”
“Now,” Simon writes in an effort to connect the two, “a major push to expand these voucher programs is under way from Alaska to New York, a development that seems certain to sharply increase the investment.”
She’s not the first to pose such a challenge. Nobel Prize-winning economist Milton Friedman anticipated such questions in his 1955 essay The Role of Government in Education:
Schools run by different religious groups will, it can be argued, instill sets of values that are inconsistent with one another and with those instilled in other schools; in this way they convert education into a divisive rather than a unifying force…Carried to its extreme, this argument would call not only for governmentally administered schools, but also for compulsory attendance at such schools.
“On grounds of principle,” Friedman stated, “it conflicts with the preservation of freedom itself.”
Indeed, in 1925 the Supreme Court struck down an Oregon law that did just that. The state required all students to attend public schools, which eliminated sectarian—namely, Catholic—school options. The Court’s decision unequivocally declared that a child is not “the mere creature of the state.”
One way to make that point clear is to allow parents to use school choice to direct their children’s education. Friedman argued for the separation of the financing of education from the delivery of services, thereby ensuring parents can choose options that align with their children’s learning needs. In the decades following his seminal essay, states answered the call, allowing for private school choice options. These states recognized that school choice represents a simple shift in education financing.
In 2002, questions about school choice made it all the way to the Supreme Court via an Establishment Clause challenge, as part of the Zelman v. Simmons-Harris case. In Zelman, the Court upheld the constitutionality of allowing parents to use public funds to go to private religious schools in a 5-4 majority opinion:
Under such a program, government aid reaches religious institutions only by way of the deliberate choices of numerous individual recipients. The incidental advancement of a religious mission, or the perceived endorsement of a religious message, is reasonably attributable to the individual aid recipients not the government, whose role ends with the disbursement of benefits.
The philosophical and legal underpinnings of school choice have been well-established.
At its core, choice in education is about just that: choice. Marc Ashton, whose son Max is visually impaired and is now using an Arizona education savings account to customize his education, explains what choice has meant to his family:
We have used the ESA toward tuition, but we have also been able to buy equipment for him. He needs a talking computer and we got that for him. He gets his brail from ESA funds. The school provides some of it, but ESAs have given him all the choices he needs…If we could give every child the same opportunity that Max has, whether they are blind or just not in the right place or the right school district—why not?
Choice opponents have long tried to paint school options outside of the government monopoly as unacceptable and ineffective. If only these critics put the same effort into noting the ongoing failure of assignment-by-zip code policies that have relegated students to underperforming public schools.
School choice has made great strides in recent years because it works: it significantly increases the likelihood a student will graduate high school; it fosters improvements in the public system by creating competitive pressure on the monopoly; it provides better access to services for children with special needs; and it increases parental satisfaction and involvement. Thankfully, state and local leaders and families are seeing firsthand the benefits of school choice, and as a result, are working to ensure every child has quality educational options.