Education Opinion

‘Choice’ Plans Should Include Private Option

By John E. Coons — January 17, 1990 7 min read

When government adopts educational choice as sound policy, should it help parents choose private as well as public schools? Or should it instead continue its effective monopoly over the schooling of those who cannot afford to pay for an education?

So far in the debate over choice, the President, the governors, spokesmen for the public schools, and the teachers’ unions have assumed that only state-operated schools would participate. Curiously, no one has tried to justify the exclusion of private schools. Some protagonists self-consciously evade the question; one well-known figure even resorts to code, signaling that private is taboo merely by italicizing the word public. Even those who have long praised private schools as educators of the poor duck the issue of their inclusion. This mute boycott of the obvious has been criticized as political cowardice. Is there a benign interpretation?

The explanation cannot be that any comprehensive system of choice would discriminate against government schools. No politically sane proposal could allow unregulated private academies to “cream off” the brightest prospects and charge extra tuition, leaving public schools with red tape, regulation, and rejects. If there were to be a private option, both politics and good sense require that the playing field be level or even tipped toward the state schools. Specifically, the subvention for state schools would have to equal or exceed that for the private sector. And, except for the teaching of religion, public schools would have to be deregulated to enjoy the same freedom as private schools in management, style, and content. Conversely, every private and public school would accept the new responsibility of admitting a substantial share of low-income children; poor families could not be excluded by unregulated charges beyond the state subsidy.

Adjust the details to your satisfaction. Once the system is neutral between sectors, the case for government monopoly is thin. Private education obviously works well enough for those who now use it--and especially for the poor. No one doubts that low-budget religious schools are effective with disadvantaged children. Of course, the populations of these successful schools are “self-selected,” but that is precisely the point. Poverty does not destroy the parental capacity to choose well, and the waiting lists at such institutions demonstrate that those who have already chosen are not the only parents who know what they are doing.

Nor is the private sector a special instrument for segregation by race and class. To the contrary, it offers a neglected opportunity for dismantling the de facto segregation that is typically imposed by government schools. Imagine what scholarships could achieve in the hands of parents in the depressed neighborhoods of, say, Los Angeles or the District of Columbia.

In Kansas City--a similar urban setting--black families have petitioned the federal court to order the deliberately segregated school district to provide scholarships so that their children can vindicate their 14th Amendment rights in integrated private schools. Why do they need private schools? First, there are too few whites--25 percent--left in the public schools of the defendant district; second, the contiguous districts will not accept transfers. By contrast, 50 neighboring private schools--Catholic, Lutheran, Episcopal, and secular--have offered over 4,000 spaces in their own integrated student bodies. The sole condition they would impose is that applicants not have a record of repeated violent behavior. The average per-pupil cost of such schools is about $2,000; the Kansas City public schools spend three times as much.

Are private schools, then, a problem or a solution? If they stand ready to reduce segregation, will they nevertheless be red-lined because of some occult objection to what they do?

For many policymakers and educators, the answer is yes. It simply does not matter to them how effective the private schools are in educating the poor and in producing integration by class and race. Indeed, if private schools are efficient at what they do, this only makes them worse. For the real objection is that they teach the wrong ideas. Children of the underclass can get the “right” ideas only in institutions that combine a common curriculum with state monopoly.

This one right way for the poor was contrived in another epoch. It was designed to provide a specific therapy for the uncommon curricula of 19th-century immigrants, with their loyalties to strange gods and old cultures. Its patrician founders feared that toleration of exotic doctrines would have two consequences: Error would proliferate and endure, and ideological factions would war with one another as they had in the Old World. The imposition of a common curriculum would thus serve both a “truth” function and a social function.

The truth function has evaporated. The curriculum can no longer be “common” in the sense of a set of accepted propositions, for there are too many versions of reality and of the good life. The message can be only a vector of these many visions of truth. And so we witness creationists and evolutionists battling to exhaustion, assuring thereby that the ideas of neither can be preached; creationism is out, but evolution can be taught only as a theory.

This temperate outcome is typical of the state’s resolution of controversial questions. Public schools are left to teach the compromises that emerge from the clashes of labor, minorities, feminists, churches, homosexuals, nationalists, and business. On many of life’s interesting issues of fact and morality, the public schools offer not truth but rather whatever propositions are allowed by the bland treaties forged by politics. By its nature, the common curriculum must be narrow, riskless, and--very often--silent.

The politics of pluralism thus imposes a kind of peaceable agnosticism on the public schools as their civic duty. This intellectual repose becomes so familiar that it is sometimes mistaken as a good in itself. By extension, those who teach truth as they see it can appear almost uncivil. By trafficking in specific answers to controversial questions, they threaten the American covenant. And such answers are precisely what many private schools offer their students on crucial issues of fact and morality. They teach particular descriptions of God, intellect, will, human immortality, and the limits of science; they address directly such concerns as abortion, chastity, social responsibility, individualism, nationalism, and the pursuit of money.

The vanilla curriculum of public education must endure, and it is an appropriate diet for those who prefer it. But a policy of irenic censorship in the public sector must not be misunderstood as a national philosophy of knowledge. The menu provided by the state is no criterion of truth but a makeshift necessary for this peculiarly political institution. No argument appears here for discriminating against private schools that teach distinct ideas on which Americans disagree.

The other historical justification for public monopoly was the social function of schools. And there is still a consensus--which I share--that schools should nourish civic virtue in two senses: Graduates should be prepared to participate in government and society, and they should be tolerant of diversity. Now, no one imagines that private schools violate the first mandate. Their alumni participate as voters and public servants and are no more likely to go to jail or commit suicide than the rest of us. The objection rather boils down to the 19th-century fear that, because they promote ideas that must be censored in the sanitized public curriculum, private schools will breed intolerance.

What do we know of the relative effects of public and private schooling on tolerance? There is no evidence that graduates of private schools typically aim to throttle the civil rights of others. What we do know of them cuts exactly the other way. Meanwhile, the really successful merchant of intolerance may be the public system of assignment, in which the poor have choice of neither school nor curriculum. The inner-city clients of that system see plainly that their views of the good and the true are despised; they, in turn, have little reason to tolerate the views of others. What Horace Mann actually achieved in the lobbied curriculum was a plausible design for social division.

A choice of private schools well might make things better. Parents who found themselves liberated and trusted by society would at last have a reason to support the system and to transmit their sense of belonging to the child. The effect of systematic indoctrination on the individual child is, of course, not predictable. And, in a system of choice, a very few schools would hope to teach intolerance--they do now in both sectors.

We know, nonetheless, that children profit in a general way from a school that is committed to the ideals of a community chosen by the family. If tolerance has not been a conspicuous product of the public curriculum, could it be that this virtue, like others, is best learned from humans who embody some freely chosen version of the good? Perhaps children must learn respect for the ideals of others by first grasping those of their own parents. There is certainly no evidence to the contrary.

I find nothing in our national experience or in our understanding of childhood that justifies the exclusion of private schools from any system of subsidized parental choice.

A version of this article appeared in the January 17, 1990 edition of Education Week as ‘Choice’ Plans Should Include Private Option