The Dilemma of School Choice

With the court battle over the constitutionality of Milwaukee’s school choice program now under way, parents, educators, and legislators across the country are gearing up for an outcome that could determine the direction of education reform in America. Though some believe that Wisconsin’s choice program, which allows religious schools to accept tax-funded vouchers from low-income parents, violates the “establishment clause” of the First Amendment, not a few states have followed Wisconsin’s lead, moving full speed ahead to pass or to draft legislation that makes similar programs legal.

Ohio has designed a program like the one created for Milwaukee, which is scheduled to take effect in Cleveland next fall— although the American Federation of Teachers has just filed a lawsuit challenging the program on separation of church and state grounds. House and Senate budget negotiators recently put together a plan that would establish such a program in the District of Columbia. The House approved the plan; the Senate has yet to vote. Connecticut, Minnesota, New Jersey, and Illinois are currently drafting school choice legislation to include religious schools, and still other states, including North Carolina, Florida, Michigan, and Texas, are discussing what this sort of legislation might look like. The Wisconsin Supreme Court is expected to come to a decision this spring. A ruling in the state’s favor could establish school choice as the foremost of educational reform efforts nationwide, but if Wisconsin’s program fails to pass constitutional muster, the school choice movement, which has gained significant momentum in recent years, could find itself seriously impeded.

Leading the school choice movement are Catholics and conservatives: They believe that school choice is worth fighting for, that it is a fight they can win, and most important, that it is a fight they cannot afford to lose. As these supporters see it, school choice programs amount to social justice for the poor, who have few or no options concerning the education of their children. At the same time, they argue, school choice will effect real education reform by creating competition among the panoply of public, private, and parochial schools serving the nation’s communities. As Milton Friedman, who brought school choice to the nation’s attention during the 1950s, has explained, the availability of scholarship money for needy students will spawn the creation of new schools of all stripes, both public and private. Bad schools will be forced to close, other public schools will have to do a better job, and a diversified market of good schools will over time replace a sluggish government monopoly. Friedman hopes this system of schools will eventually become altogether private, but for many school choice advocates, a reasonable coexistence between public and independent schools is both sufficient and desirable.

While supporters tout school choice as the long-sought-after cure for our educational woes, there are critics, many of them conservatives, who claim that choice programs would exacerbate these ills. The largest opposition to school choice comes from the left, of course—most vehemently from teachers’ unions believing that school choice programs will ensure the eventual and total demise of public education. But there is another divide over the issue of school choice. It is a divide that splits the right, creating a second front of critics who oppose school choice for reasons they believe to be in keeping with conservative principles. What seems the inevitable result of choice programs, according to these critics, is the death of private and parochial education as we know it. Far from empowering parents, such a loss, they argue, would ultimately render families less in control of their children’s education than they are at the present time.

These critics cite an age-old adage in support of their argument: He who pays the piper calls the tune. By putting public money in the hands of independent schools, they contend, whether it comes through parents or any other middle party, school choice programs open up private and parochial education to unwanted government regulation. Not that accountability in such cases is always objectionable. Indeed, says Douglas Dewey, president of the National Scholarship Center, a clearinghouse for privately funded vouchers based in Washington, D.C., it would be “unconservative” to desire anything less. The problem is, rather, that once the government is allowed any room to maneuver in the affairs of private institutions, there is little chance of stopping it from seeking further control.

By allowing the government to get its foot in the front doors of independent schools, Dewey argues, we will only bring about their ruin: “If we install school choice programs across America, in twenty years, the government will have gotten so far involved with the business of private and parochial schools that there will be nothing to distinguish those schools from public, or, I should say, government schools.” In light of what the Church teaches about the state’s role in the education of Catholic children—namely, that its influence must be weakened if, as the Holy Father states in Familiaris Consortio, “ideologies opposed to the Christian faith are taught in the schools”—Catholics, if anyone, says Dewey, should approach the issue of school choice with trepidation.

Catholic leaders in Wisconsin and elsewhere do not see the death of parochial education on the horizon. To them, it is paramount that Catholic schools, which are particularly successful in educating the urban poor, are made available to those who need them the most. In addition, many parochial schools at the present time can hardly keep financially afloat. As the number of parochial schools in America continues to diminish, says Catholic leadership, the prospect of additional financial support for schools that are in trouble is not something that can be easily dismissed. Nor should it be, says John Huebscher, the executive director of the Wisconsin Catholic Conference. While schools participating in Milwaukee’s choice program may be subject to a certain degree of public accountability, he argues, “Catholic schools will not be hurt” in the process. He says, rather, that he expects government regulation as a result of school choice to be limited. The Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction held public hearings on proposed rules for Milwaukee’s choice participants in December. The rules include the stipulation that independent schools forgo their admissions requirements and accept choice students by lottery. Catholic school leadership does not believe that parochial academic programs will be compromised as a result and agreed that the rules were acceptable.

Huebscher and other Catholic school choice advocates in Milwaukee say that their willingness to work with the DPI in order to get the school choice ball rolling should by no account be mistaken for a casual or flippant attitude about the prospect of the state meddling in parochial school affairs. Indeed, Catholic choice supporters, if anything, are vehement about maintaining the integrity of parochial school programs. What choice supporters believe, rather, is that government dollars need not (in fact, they claim, as real-life examples indicate, they do not) corrupt everything they touch. For instance, says Quentin Quade, director of Marquette University’s Blum Center for Parental Freedom in Education, government regulation does not follow social security checks to the doorsteps of those who receive them, nor does it follow food stamps. Neither, he argues, did the GI Bill of Rights, which allowed veterans to take public money to colleges and other institutions of learning, result in the debasement of higher education. In the final analysis, says Quade, the degree of government regulation will depend on “how intelligently the states define their policies.”

While schools can ultimately safeguard themselves against government regulation by electing not to participate in choice programs, it is possible, according to Clint Bolick, an attorney with the D.C.-based Institute for Justice, which is helping defend the Milwaukee program in court, to draft school choice legislation with built-in firewalls to protect independent schools from heavy state involvement. And to bolster the support afforded by legislative firewalls, Bolick argues that parents and educators participating in school choice programs should remain vigilant when it comes to state decisions about rules for participating schools. If states put pressure on the parameters of choice programs and try to overregulate, he says, parents can litigate against them. In 1990, when Milwaukee’s first school choice program, which did not include religious schools, was being organized, the Department of Public Instruction set rules for participating independent schools that many considered to be too far-reaching. One of the requirements stated that these schools would have to provide special education programs for handicapped children, and most of the schools were not equipped to do so. Parents thought the DPI was trying to kill school choice and challenged the regulations in court. The judge ruled in their favor, and the rules for participating schools were altered accordingly.

But conservatives who oppose school choice claim that firewalls and vigilance are not enough to protect independent schools from government interference. For one, explains Father Robert Sirico, president of the Acton Institute for the Study of Religion and Liberty, while Catholic schools that are “clear about their identity will most certainly be apt to guard their programs against government intrusion at first,” such tenacity, he believes, will more than likely turn out to be short-lived. “The real concern has to do with what will happen to vigilance during the coming generations when there are people running Catholic schools who did not fight the fight. It is then that these schools, even those we consider to be the strongest today, will run into trouble.”

In addition to being shortsighted, say choice opponents, those who consider prudence and vigilance to be enough to sustain independent schools receiving government dollars are engaging in the denial of massive historical evidence. When institutions of higher learning began to accept Pell grants and other federal aid to students in need during the ’70s, explains Ronald L. Trowbridge, a vice president at Hillsdale College in Hillsdale, Michigan, those institutions were assured that there would be “no strings attached” to the money. Then, in the mid-’80s, the government “changed its mind” and stipulated that all colleges and universities receiving federal funding in the form of aid to students were required to abide by Title IX legislation on affirmative action. After a 1985 Supreme Court ruling stated that institutions would have to accept affirmative action if they were accepting federal aid to students, Hillsdale stopped taking such aid and has subsisted since on private donations.

“History demonstrates over and over again,” says Trowbridge, “that courts and legislatures can intervene and change laws. We, the people, may be able to pass firewalls to prevent onerous regulation of private schools, but we, the people also voted for the Constitution, and look what has happened to it since then.”

If the level of government involvement in higher education has over time proved increasingly unacceptable, argues Sheldon Richman, a senior editor at the Cato Institute and the author of Separating School and State, government regulation of independent elementary and secondary schools participating in voucher programs will be more severe. This amounts to the difference between adults and children, he explains. “The state has long asserted a compelling interest in the education of children—so much so that it can override parents when it feels a child’s educational well-being is at stake.” For this reason, says Richman, voucher programs will never look like the GI Bill so far as pursuant government regulation is concerned. The GI Bill may not have resulted directly in the corruption of institutions that accepted public money from veterans in the way that Pell grants and other federal aid to students have, but voucher programs, Richman contends, because they touch youngsters, assuredly will.

While supporters of school choice argue that independent schools participating in voucher programs could, like Hillsdale, drop out if the burden of government regulation were to become too much, Ronald Trowbridge claims that few independent schools will be able to resist the prospect of financial assistance. “And once they accept government money,” he says, “they will never be able to go back like Hillsdale was able to.” Hillsdale was able to sustain itself after finally refusing federal money, Trowbridge explains, because the money Hillsdale received from the government went only to scholarships, not to expanded curricula, staff, equipment or construction on new facilities. Private and parochial elementary and secondary schools, on the other hand, according to Trowbridge, will use the government money they receive in the form of vouchers or scholarships to expand. Once schools have expanded, he argues, they will not be able to do without the extra income. “Only those schools that are highly ideologically motivated,” says Richman, “will be able to drop out. In this respect, school choice looks a lot like a trap.”

Quentin Quade says this position amounts to “a presumptuous assessment of the moral capacities of others.” According to Diane Ravitch, a senior research scholar at New York University, it fails to address the reality of government involvement in independent education at the present time. Private and parochial schools, she points out, actually accept government money now. Catholic schools in New York City, for example, are allotted several hundred million dollars of the city’s annual education budget. That money covers, among other things, student transportation and textbooks. School choice notwithstanding, says Ravitch, independent schools are subject to government regulation as it is. In fact, they are already regulated with regard to health and safety requirements. And constitutionally speaking, the state has the ability to regulate schools regardless of whether they accept government money. What keeps states from doing things “like imposing weird outcome based education requirements now,” explains attorney Richard Komer of the Institute for Justice, “is common sense.”

Still, argues Douglas Dewey, “the fact that the vandals are at the gates makes a poor case for throwing them wide open—if anything, that logic concedes the case.” But to Dewey and many other conservative choice opponents, the specter of an over meddlesome state is not the real issue in the school choice conflict. As these choice opponents see it, concerns about government regulation are ancillary to what should take center stage in the debate— the question of state-funded education. Like Milton Friedman, these conservatives would like to see government education finally dismantled, but unlike Friedman, they do not believe that school choice is a step toward achieving this end. Conservatives who support school choice, these opponents argue, regardless of whether they advocate doing away with government-financed education, are not arguing in accordance with first principles.

When the government made education compulsory, they contend, it became the producer and distributor of a service. Because the state funds that service, they further argue, it follows that the state owns that service. Yet according to natural law and Christian tradition, families should be the owners, or controllers, of their children’s education. Indeed, that right, as the Holy Father states in Familiaris Consortio, is one of the family’s chief, most intimate, responsibilities. What tax-funded vouchers do, say these choice opponents, is give the impression that the ownership of education is being transferred back to families. But because the money is public money, explains Marshall Fritz, president of the Separation of School and State Alliance, that ownership is still in the hands of the state. Far from reducing the government’s role in education, he concludes, vouchers represent “a full embrace” of the logic of government schooling.

In addition, say these choice opponents, vouchers expand the logic of state-funded education to an unprecedented degree. Families that are now saving and making sacrifices for their children’s education, for instance, will no longer do so once tax-funded vouchers are made available, Fritz argues. Instead, he says, parents will rely on the government to assume what is one of their primary duties. And once families “get on the education dole,” he says, it will be nearly impossible for them to go back to making sacrifices. A willingness to sacrifice for the education of one’s children, says Dewey, is what George Gilder has called “the highest sign of social responsibility.” That conservatives are the strongest proponents of what amounts to recruiting people to become dependent on government money, Dewey argues, “is especially heinous as it touches low-income families who are trying to pull themselves out of poverty.”

In place of publicly funded school choice programs, many who support this position are in favor of tax breaks for families that send their children to private schools. Others look to privately-funded voucher programs along with other grassroots efforts as ways to effect educational reform. Still, while there are currently 10,000 children in twenty-three locations around the country benefitting from private vouchers, and while money is consistently being made available for such purposes, many school choice opponents and supporters alike do not believe that private efforts alone will bring about substantial change any time soon. “If we were on the verge of abandoning the government’s role in education,” says Clint Bolick, “maybe private efforts alone would be viable. But I do not foresee a time in the near future, nor should there be, when government is no longer viewed as the primary guarantor of educational opportunities.”

As Diane Ravitch explains, there are children right now who need a way out of fruitless educational situations—children whose parents are not in a position to make sacrifices— “and they cannot wait five or ten years for change to occur.” In light of the moral bankruptcy prevailing in some of our poorest areas, she further contends, these parents need to have available to them the opportunity to send their children to religious schools. In this regard, says Ravitch, school choice programs could actually prevent some children from living out their lives as prescribed by the dictates of the worst elements of American culture. Even if Catholic schools were to endure some regulation by the state, she argues, at the very least, countless children who would otherwise experience little opportunity for educational or moral direction would gain those opportunities.

School choice may indeed be a way to immediately address the current crisis in American education; it may be a means by which to mitigate the effects of America’s moral crisis. But in light of the costs it may incur down the road, school choice looks to many conservatives like a Faustian bargain. At a time when the debate over educational reform is pitched higher, some would argue, than ever before, at the very least cautions Ronald Trowbridge, “conservatives need to slow down and consider carefully the potential, and I think inevitable, results of school choice programs that deliver public money to parents and then put it into the hands of private institutions.”


  • Stacy Mattingly

    At the time this article was published, Stacy Mattingly was a writer living in Atlanta, Georgia.

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