Will Indiana School Choice Infringe Upon Liberty?

There’s more bad news about the school choice bill awaiting Gov. Mitch Daniels’ signature in Indiana. Yesterday, Adam Schaeffer wrote about its possible negative fiscal impact if coupled with the state’s tax credit program. Perhaps just as concerning is the law’s requirement that private schools prove that they are sufficiently “American” to participate in the program. This interview with State Sen. Carlin Yoder (R), one of the bill’s sponsors, captures the sentiment behind the requirement:

Perhaps the problem here is that, in all of the education policy community’s obsession with test scores and dollars, we’ve lost sight of what school choice should ultimately be about: freedom. It should be about creating an education system that allows people to choose for themselves what values they will embrace and how they will live, not one that allows the state to dictate — either through hard compulsion or soft bribery — those things. Giving the state that power, though the state might employ it only rarely or gently, is still ultimately giving the state authority over our thoughts and expressions, and that is the basis for, potentially, a most thorough of tyrannies.

There is great irony in this aspect of Indiana’s soon-to-be law, which would curb the ability of educators to freely teach as they please, and of parents and students to freely seek out the education they want.  As Sen. Yoder says, to “make sure the students appreciate our great history in the U.S.,”  the law would curb that thing that has made it great: individual liberty.

Of course, the very understandable fear animating this is that unless taught the importance of freedom as children, adults will sacrifice liberty. But government coercion to prevent that, even if well intentioned, doesn’t appear to produce the desired results — liberty is sacrificed without even getting the hoped for ends.

According to a recent summary of research compiled by University of Arkansas professor Patrick Wolf on the transmission of “civic values” such as political tolerance, civic knowledge, and even proclivity to perform community service, private-school students come out on top. Why? Most likely because in public schooling people holding lots of different opinions on what constitutes proper “American” values are forced to pay for a single system of government schools, and hence to fight over what the system teaches. All too often the road to peace is to teach, well, nothing, or close to it, in order to anger as few people as possible. Private schools, in contrast, tend to hold set, coherent values parents agree to when choosing them, and it appears that if uncoerced, people will choose to have their children educated to be good citizens.

School choice must be about freedom — the ultimate American value — not, as Indiana is on the verge of doing, undermining liberty in the name of protecting it.