January 9, 2015 4:20PM

Public Schooling’s Pluralism Problem and the School Choice Solution

Last month, the Orthodox Union, a prominent Jewish organization, launched a campaign advocating for private school choice policies. That raised hackles from Americans United for Separation of Church and State (AU), which condemned the chutzpah of the Orthodox Union to work for equal funding for children in their community:

“It [the campaign] will require us to stop being timid,” [Orthodox Union executive vice president Allen Fagin] said. “We pay our taxes, and our kids are also entitled not to be left behind.”

That statement, of course, is only half-true: Fagin’s constituents do pay their taxes, and their children are indeed entitled to an education. But that’s exactly what public schools are for. OU’s campaign relies on the same faulty logic we’ve seen from advocates of voucher programs: Because parents pay taxes, they should be able to ask every other taxpayer in the state to subsidize their child’s religious education. It’s a clear constitutional violation. [...]

It’s unconscionable (and exceptionally brazen) for OU to demand that further funds be siphoned away from public schools intended to serve entire communities in order to promote their private religious agenda. If Orthodox parents want to place their children in religious schools, that’s their right. And it’s their responsibility to pay for it.

In reality though, it's the idea that so-called "public" schools are actually "public" that is only half-true. District schools are technically open to any student whose parents can afford to live in the district, but they are certainly not "intended to serve entire communities." For example, they are not intended to serve Orthodox Jews or others like them who have a different vision of education. When everyone is forced to pay for one school system and decisions about education are made via a political process, there will be winners and losers.

Let's consider an imaginary "public" school district where there are three groups of people: Hobbits, Ewoks, and Terrans. Each groups has very different and passionately held views about what should be taught in school and how it should be taught. All three groups are required to pay taxes to support the district school, which is ostensibly nonpartisan, nondenominational, and open to all. However, the majority of the district is Terran so the school reflects the Terran preferences. When the Hobbits and Ewoks open their own schools and seek equal per-pupil support from the local government, the indignant Terrans respond that the district school is meant for everyone. "It's your right to open your own schools," explain the Terrans, "but it's your responsibility to pay for them." Thus the majority brazenly forces minority groups either to abandon their values or to pay for two school systems. And lower-income minorities may have no choice at all.

Sadly, this is far from hypothetical. Indeed, it's the unconscionable status quo that the AU defends. As my colleague Neal McCluskey has observed, "Public schooling politics is a zero-sum game: all people pay in, but only those with political power get control."

Familiarizing oneself with the history of American education makes clear just how divisive public schooling has been. For instance, see the Philadelphia “Bible Riots” or the textbook war in Kanawha County, WV. And just because something is local- or state-controlled doesn’t free it from conflict. Cato’s still-under-construction public schooling “battle map” pinpoints well over 800—and growing—contemporary battles over basic values and rights fought at the school, district, and state levels. And that doesn’t include constant combat over budgets, teacher evaluations, school start times, math curricula, and on and on.

Ultimately, understanding why public schools are the source of unceasing conflict—and why it worsens the more that control is centralized—requires the simplest of logic: One government school system cannot possibly serve all, diverse people equally.

The voucher system that AU maligns is actually a solution to the social strife and unfairness inherent in government schooling. When students who opt out of the district school receive vouchers to attend the school of their choice, no family is forced to send their child to a school that does not reflect their values. Parents are therefore not forced into conflict with each other over what the schools should teach, nor are minority groups expected to fund schools that are anathema to them while paying for their own schools. Fortunately, contrary to AU's claims, the U.S. Supreme Court found that school voucher systems are in harmony with the U.S. Constitution.

Nevertheless, the AU still has a legitimate concern about coercion. Why should everyone be forced to fund schools that teach values that some find abhorrent? As Thomas Jefferson argued, "to compel a man to furnish contributions of money for the propagation of opinions which he disbelieves and abhors, is sinful and tyrannical." The AU has a point when they object to forcing atheists to pay for religious schools, or forcing members of one religion to pay for schools run by members of another denomination.

Of course, if the AU is truly concerned about coercion, they should also be concerned about the coercion inherent in government-run district schools. Why should the Hobbits and Ewoks be forced to fund "public" schools that teach Terran values? And why should devout Christians, observant Jews, or pious Muslims be forced to subsidize district schools that teach values they might abhor?

A voucher system is superior to a government-run school system because vouchers reduce social conflict and empower parents to choose schools aligned with their values. But they fail to eliminate coercion. An education system that truly cherishes fairness and respects diversity would empower parents to choose the schools their children attend while also respecting the freedom of conscience of taxpayers. Fortunately, more than a dozen states have moved in that direction by adopting scholarship tax credit laws, which grant tax credits to donors to scholarship organizations that aid families who opt out of the district school system. As Andrew J. Coulson has explained:

Unlike the funding of public schools, which is compulsory for all taxpayers, participation in [a scholarship] tax credit program is voluntary. If an individual chooses not to donate to [a scholarship organization], his taxes are collected just as they have always been, and those dollars cannot be used for any sectarian purpose. Furthermore, if a taxpayer does choose to make a donation, he is free to select the [scholarship organization] most consistent with his own values.

Sadly, Americans United has repeatedly opposed scholarship tax credit laws in the court of public opinion and courts of law. We hope that someday they will realize that scholarship tax credits are the best policy to achieve their pluralistic goals.