It’s a Child, Not a Choice

No, it’s not an abortion rant. My topic is education in general and the weird phenomenon of “school choice” advocacy in particular. But the parallels between the two issues deserve exploration.

The school choice movement, broadly defined, proposes to improve public education — the state’s mandate to provide K-12 schooling to all comers — by introducing “market values” in the form of competition between schools (“public,” i.e. government-operated, and private) for the tax dollars allocated to that mandate.

The school choice movement breaks down into three camps: Charter schools supporters, voucher advocates and tax credit advocates.

Charter schools supporters want to students in the government-operated system, but propose additional, special public schools — schools with particular academic focuses or novel approaches to pedagogy — and an “open enrollment” scheme that allows students to choose Public Arts School #1 or Public Vo-Tech School #3 instead of just getting on the bus and attending the public schools designated for their neighborhoods.

Voucher and tax credit advocates propose to make private schools eligible for the tax dollars allocated to education. The voucher system entails allowing a parent to choose a private school and partially or wholly pay tuition at that school with a voucher that the school could then redeem from the state for tax dollars (presumably up to the per-student amount that the state spends on education). The tax credit system, more simply, just lets a parent deduct tuition costs from his or her income taxes.

At first blush, these proposals seem like improvements to the existing system. Competition, the theory goes, will force public schools to do a better job of educating kids, else their funding will disappear and go instead to the private schools (or, in the case of charter schools, other public ones) that out-perform them.

In reality, however, “school choice” is the worst of all possible worlds. It doesn’t end the state’s near-monopoly on education. In fact, it extends that monopoly into the private sector and infects all educational choices with the problems inherent to that monopoly.

One of the first firewalls put up by public education supporters against vouchers and tax credits has been prohibition against using them for schools operated by religious institutions or with religious items in their curricula. The reason that’s one of the first objections is that it’s one of the most obvious and reasonable. If the First Amendment’s establishment clause means anything, it means that the government doesn’t get to use your tax dollars for religious indoctrination.

Another obvious and reasonable firewall is the application of government anti-discrimination laws to schools accepting “government funds.” It matters not whether the Ku Klux Klan Academy does a fine job of teaching its students to read, write and do arithmetic — if they don’t accept students of color, they don’t get tax money.

The first firewalls will not be the last.

How long will it be before the “English Only” lobby demands a prohibition against the use of tax credits or vouchers for teaching in Spanish?

How long before the creationists insist that schools which don’t present “intelligent design” forfeit their ability to participate in the program — and how long before the science community insists on barring schools that do?

Admissions, curriculum, hiring practices, firing practices — over time, schools which accept vouchers or for which tax credits are allowed will be pulled into the government standards that have made public education a failure. By the time it’s over, those private schools will effectively be public schools. The only difference will be that now students will have nowhere else to go.

The school choice advocate is like a woman who has discovered, a couple of months into her pregnancy, that her child has Down Syndrome. Suppose that woman decides not to get an abortion, but also refuses to acknowledge that she’s going to give birth to a developmentally disabled child? Oh, but she’s got a miracle cure — if she can just choose to deliver the baby at a different hospital, why, that will change everything!

Except that it won’t change anything. The problem isn’t the OB-GYN or the quality of the hospital’s neo-natal intensive care unit. The problem is that the baby has Down Syndrome, and no matter which OB-GYN she consults or which hospital she chooses, she’s going to bring the problem with her.

This hypothetical woman and the real-life school choice advocate are making the same mistake. The result — developmentally crippled children — is the same, too.

The problem isn’t lack of competition within the government education mandate. The problem is the government education mandate. The only solution is separation of school and state. And while we’re at it, how about separation of everything else and state, too?

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