“School Choice is the Right Choice”

Posted on December 26, 1997

“School Choice is the Right Choice”
By Nathan J. Diament
NCJW Journal, Winter 1997

After years of being at the periphery of the political debate, school choice has taken center stage among the handful of public policy issues that Americans are discussing at all levels of government and across all ethnic and cultural lines. Greater awareness of, and frustration with, dysfunctional public schools (particularly in the inner cities) have energized a broad and diverse coalition to support school choice initiatives on the federal, state and local levels. This coalition includes inner-city African-Americans, economic libertarians and cultural conservatives; it includes Republicans and Democrats; it includes Jews, Christians and Muslims.

The central thesis that unites the varied supporters of education reform initiatives, and school choice proposals in particular, is a simple one that the American education system must first and foremost be accountable to those it is designed to serve, children and their parents. American society, perhaps more than any other, pioneered and proved that competition in an open market is the most efficient and productive system for serving consumers of virtually any commodity. Competition with Japanese auto manufacturers forced improvements and savings upon Detroit’s big three and the break up of AT&T’s monopoly on telephone service has brought lower rates to consumers for telecommunications. These industries must serve their customers and earn their income or lose market share and whither away in the face of those who provide better results.

School choice proponents want to ensure that the education system serves its “customers” in order to earn its way. Currently, a public school is not accountable to the students enrolled in it or their parents. Children are required, by law, to attend schools in which their physical safety is threatened [whether by decaying ceilings or fellow “students”] and their chances of being educated are nil. The public school receives a per pupil allocation of funds from the government whether it is successfully teaching those pupils or not. Thus, there is no incentive for the school to improve and succeed; its “clients” are guaranteed as is its income.

In addition to making schools compete, school choice proponents want to make schools accountable to parents by making them the referees of this competition. This is accomplished in the prototypical proposal by empowering parents to allocate the per pupil education dollars. Each parent is provided a voucher for each child equal to the per pupil allocation. The money then “follows the child” to the school s/he chooses. Thus, better performing schools that attract more children receive greater resources than schools that arent up to the job. It’s that simple.

The energy driving most school choice proponents is also simple; society has a moral responsibility to educate all of its children well, irrespective of their economic circumstances, and it is failing to do so. While well-to-do families exercise school choice each year (by sending their kids to pricey private schools or moving to upscale suburbs with excellent public schools) the poor cannot. The case for school choice is, fundamentally, a moral one for it seeks to reduce the role that personal wealth plays in securing education for one’s children.

It is not surprising that teachers unions and other groups with vested interests in the education status quo oppose school choice for it threatens their power and security. It is surprising, however, that the one group one would expect to support initiatives intended at their core to give greater educational opportunity  and thus the chance at a better life to American children, namely liberals, oppose school choice with a passion. Liberals invoke several arguments against school choice, each one of them intellectually weak.

Perhaps the most absurd argument is the one that suggests that there is no evidence school choice will improve the education kids receive. First, it is school choice opponents who work assiduously to block choice pilot programs in the legislature when they are proposed and then tie them up in litigation if they are passed. Thus, the difficulty in conducting several broad-based choice experiments and analyzing their results is hamstrung by those who contend that there are no results supporting the argument for choice. Second, to the degree that choice experiments have been allowed to run, the evidence of increased test scores and academic performance is quite good. Two studies conducted by Harvard University, one on the choice experiment in Milwaukee and one in Cleveland, revealed higher test scores and high levels of parental satisfaction with their kids education. Opponents are fighting a losing battle when trying to base it on real data, so they turn to arguments not based in fact, but in imagining the worst.

School choice will not destroy the public schools. Competing with Honda did not destroy Ford, and it made things much better fir Ford customers. Moreover, we already have vouchers in our education system only it is restricted to college and graduate students who can receive federal and state loans and grants to use at the public, private or sectarian college of their choice. Public universities seem to still be doing just fine; they are neither riddled with violent crime nor educationally unsound.

Will school choice leave the weakest students in rotting public schools? This argument is, if nothing else, ethically specious, It implicitly concedes that there are terrible schools and that many students would be better off elsewhere, but demands that they remain hostage to those who will not leave with them. Faced with losing their “clients,” individual public schools will be forced to improve or go out of business releasing their remaining students to the remaining improved schools.

School choice does not violate the First Amendment. The most frequent argument against school choice in the American Jewish community has little to do with the issues regarding education policy or equity. Rather, many Jews contend that permitting government dollars to flow, even indirectly, to parochial schools violates the mandate for separation of church and state associated with the First Amendment of the Constitution. [“Congress shall make no law respecting the establishment of religion”] This argument fails, however, on both legal and logical grounds.

The central question relevant to an analysis of school choice proposals under constitutional law is a simple one: whether the Establishment Clause proscribes any government support for religious individuals or institutions whatsoever, or seeks only to ensure that “the state” neither endorses religion over non-religion nor favors one religion over another, nor coerces religious observance by any citizen. The Supreme Courts jurisprudence over the past several decades clearly indicates that the Establishment Clause should not be read to require that religious citizens and institutions are discriminated against and may not enjoy the same benefits afforded to others because of their faith. In short, the Establishment Clause is intended to protect religion, not penalize it. Thus, in specific cases dealing with tax deductions for education expenses, tuition assistance for the disabled and, just last term, state funded remedial education programs, the Court has consistently stated so long as the benefit afforded religious students and their schools was “made available generally without regard to the sectarian nonsectarian or public nonpublic nature of the institution benefited” and the benefit to the religious institution came as a result of the “private choices” of individuals, such programs are constitutional.

To suggest otherwise is to suggest that the Constitution requires that government funds may never flow even indirectly to religious individuals or institutions. By this reasoning allowing nineteen year olds to use their Pell Grants at Notre Dame or Yeshiva University must be done away with; not to mention a host of other Establishment Clause violations such as a religious individual contributing his monthly social security check to his synagogue, another using a portion of her mortgage interest payment tax deduction toward her sons parochial school tuition and poor individual spending his food stamp at a church run concession. None of these instances establish religion and vouchers do not either.

The foregoing arguments  particularly those that highlight the fact that school choice will most immediately and directly serve the purposes of social justice by delivering greater opportunity to inner-city kids should be sufficient to enlist the Jewish communitys support for school choice. There is, however, one more reason that relates to our communal self-interest in America at the close of the century. Much has been written in recent months of the crisis of continuity in our community as reflected in intermarriage rates and Jewish illiteracy. Studies have consistently shown that day school education is the single most effective tool in ensuring that our Jewish children are knowledgeable of, proud of and committed to their Judaism. Studies have also shown how high day school tuitions are and how underfunded the schools are as well. School choice programs may, in the long term, provide some assistance for Jews who wish to, but cannot afford to, educate their children Jewishly.

School choice is the right choice; for the American community at large and the Jewish community in particular.