Despite the fact that minority families tend to want school choice, and certainly desire it more than white families, choice opponents love to imply that the modern choice movement is grounded in segregation. On what do they base this? After the U.S. Supreme Court declared longstanding, government‐forced public school segregation unconstitutional in Brown v. Board of Education (1954), some people in the South tried to use publicly funded private school choice to avoid integration. Lately, choice resisters have been citing a “new” book by Steve Suitts, former vice president of the Southern Education Foundation and an adjunct lecturer at Emory University, to make their case. The title says it all: Overturning Brown: The Segregationist Legacy of the Modern School Choice.
Why do I put “new” in quotes? Because while the book is technically new, it appears to be an almost word‐for‐word reproduction of an article Suitts published last year in Southern Spaces. That he turned the article into a book is fine, but it is important for journalists, wonks, and other readers to know that de facto responses to the book may already be out there. Indeed, I wrote one myself, published by Education Next. So I’m not going to write a review here—it already exists!
My response lays out, in as measured and charitable a way as I could muster, many failings of Suitts’ argument, including his unfair treatment of Milton Friedman, his almost entirely ignoring that Roman Catholics demanded school choice beginning in the 1840s, and his skipping over the Ku Klux Klan working to force all students into public schools in the 1920s. Suitts basically turns a blind eye to the deep pock marks of bigotry all over public schooling, and leaves out much of the history of school choice, to hang the “segregationist” banner on modern‐day choice supporters.
I won’t add anything here, except to say to journalists, wonks, or anyone else involved in the school choice debate, if you don’t challenge the school‐choice‐is‐segregationist narrative you are doing a major disservice to your readers, policymakers, and anyone seeking truth about American education. Feel free to reach out to Cato’s Center for Educational Freedom whenever you want to put together a full and fair treatment of American education. We all deserve nothing less.
A new bill in the Maryland General Assembly would prohibit counties and cities from banning children’s lemonade stands when set up occasionally on private property. I submitted these perhaps somewhat tongue‐in‐cheek comments advising lawmakers to stop them young:
“Today’s breaker of low‐level regulations is tomorrow’s breaker of more serious regulations. The ten‐year‐old who dabbles in lemonade selling today could become tomorrow’s bringer of a church potluck casserole prepared in a home kitchen rather than an inspected commercial facility. A few years later, accustomed to the ways of regulation‐breaking, that same miscreant might use that same home kitchen to bake a dozen pies, plus one for good luck, to bring to a homeless shelter for Thanksgiving.
“The time to stop it is when it starts — on the June day when the first pitcher of lemonade is mixed and hawked to passersby for 50 cents, plus a tip if you get lucky. Stop them young, or they will get used to serving others and along the way learning to act and think for themselves.
“Does this all sound a little crazy and upside down? Well, it is. We should make it easier, not harder, for kids to be enterprising, well organized, and friendly, all lessons of the lemonade stand.”
All this National School Choice Week we have been looking at public schooling, school choice, and the shaping of a tolerant, harmonious society. Links to the week’s offerings can be found at the end of this post. For our final installment, I want to briefly discuss two spheres of liberty: one the freedom to act, the second preservation of a diverse society.
Liberty, from a political standpoint, essentially means freedom from force, with a necessary corollary that one not use force on others. It is, basically, maximizing the sphere of self‐determination. Closely connected to this is that government treat all people equally, not favor one or disfavor another in their pursuits of the “good life.”
Educational freedom is consistent with liberty, and public schooling is not. Public schooling inherently involves government taking money from people, ultimately at the point of a gun, and saying, “This is what children will learn, or not learn, with this money, and if you want or need something else, too bad. Pay for that with what you have left over.” Whether the process by which government decides what is taught is democratic or totalitarian, it is still curbing liberty.
There is an important caveat to this: As long as education is about children, someone will ultimately be making decisions for them, whether it is parents or the state. That makes a pure “freedom to act” argument for school choice more difficult. But protection of liberty still points towards expansive school choice.
For one thing, if parents allow their children to have a say in how they are educated—perhaps to even make the decision themselves—that removes a barrier to free decision‐making by the person to be educated. But if on top of that the state dictates where the child will go to school, or at least where their education funding will be sent, that child faces two barriers to self‐determination. And that latter barrier will likely be far harder for children, who cannot vote but can have heavy influence in a family, to break.
The other level of liberty that is served by educational freedom, and is threatened by public schooling, is pluralism. This is perhaps best understood as protecting diverse communities of people. Rather than directly protecting personal freedom, it put limits on government so that it cannot standardize society. It is a shield between government and civil and communal society.
When we think of diverse groups, we perhaps think of religious communities first—Southern Baptists, Buddhists, etc.—but this also includes ethnic communities, philosophical communities, and more. Public schooling rests on the premise that maybe all these communities are nice, but that the political majority—or a powerful minority—should decide what will go into children’s heads with the money it takes. As a practical matter, that means some groups will have greater influence on those decisions, some lesser, and some none at all. Government will help some groups grow and marginalize others. School choice, in contrast, keeps government out of the position to take sides on the make‐up of society.
At best, our current education system is inverted. Freedom from government control should be the norm in a country grounded in liberty. But instead of a system in which the default is education based in diverse communities and free family decisions, the default is uniform government provision. This does not mean choice is losing the race—it continues to make great progress—but the road should be much more clear. The only way to push aside the boulders and fill the potholes is to help more Americans understand why freedom is crucial, and why public schooling, despite many fine intentions, is simply incompatible with it.
And now, as promised, a quick rundown of our earlier posts:
Wednesday: Must We Fight over What Children Will Learn?
We hope you’ve had a terrific School Choice Week!
Horace Mann, often called “the Father of the Common School,” believed that universal public schooling was the best way to forge citizens for a democracy. He believed that uniform schools were key to making all people virtuous, which he envisioned as holding broadly Protestant religious beliefs and putting the common good, often through service to the state, ahead of self‐interest.
Public schools are still thought to be crucial to forming good citizens, though the civic values they are expected to inculcate are secular. They should promote political knowledge and engagement, as well as cultivate inclusion and toleration of diversity. In 2016, U.S. Secretary of Education John King spoke about the importance of political engagement as part of a well‐rounded public‐school education. The public schools, because they are open to all, are thought to guarantee that all will obtain knowledge of how American government works, while simultaneously exposing students to diverse perspectives.
Private schools, on the other hand, are often assumed to be unreliable for promoting good citizenship. For one thing, they have the flexibility to promote the values of specific groups, which some fear will expose students to too narrow a set of perspectives. And there is no guarantee that they will provide civic knowledge, or promote values like tolerance, at all.
Ironically, studies show that private schools actually have a sizeable advantage over traditional public schools in promoting civic values and knowledge, perhaps precisely because they can embrace specific, concrete values.
A 2007 report examined the results of 21 quantitative studies tackling the effects of public and private school choice on 7 civic values: political tolerance, voluntarism, political knowledge, political participation, social capital, civic skills, and patriotism. Among the studies using more‐rigorous controls for factors other than schools that could affect outcomes, the author reported, “12 findings indicate statistically significant positive effects of school choice or private schooling on civic values and 10 suggest neutral results. Only one finding…indicates that traditional public schooling arrangements enhance a civic value.” Of 36 total findings in the less‐rigorous studies, 21 showed a choice advantage, 13 neutrality, and 2 an assigned public school advantage.
An analysis of 11 studies linking private school voucher programs to 3 civic values—tolerance, civic engagement, and social order—found large positive correlations between voucher use and civic values. The studies found that private school choice had a neutral to positive impact on tolerance, neutral to positive impact on civic engagement, and positive impact on social order.
In one of the studies, researchers asked students in the Washington, D.C. voucher program to identify groups such as the religious right and gay activists that they agreed with the least. The researchers then asked the students if they would allow members of the disliked groups to exercise free speech, run for president, and live in the same neighborhood as they did. Students that participated in the voucher programs were 50 percent more likely to answer “yes” to all three questions, associating the voucher program with increased tolerance.
One theory why students in private schools score higher on civic values is that in chosen schooling families and educators with shared moral, political, and social commitments can come together, enabling teachers to provide more concrete and rigorous content. In contrast, taking strong stands on questions such as whether the United States is a democracy or republic, or whether students have a moral obligation to volunteer in their communities, might be too controversial in public schools that bring in students based solely on their home address. Another possibility is that public schools that do not soft‐pedal or ignore controversial material fuel conflict, leading to greater polarization among groups than existed before.
Consistent with what Neal McCluskey observed a couple of days ago in our School Choice Week series of posts, civic education reality may be very different from the promises of public schooling champions.
In 2005, the Dover Area School District in Dover, Pennsylvania, was experiencing what might be called a civil war. As ABC News reported, “Dover was at war with itself”:
Townspeople would attack each other in ways they never had before….ABC News went to Dover to tell the story, but found that a lot of people were not talking — not to us and not really to each other. Depending on which side they were on, some people had come to believe that anyone who disagreed with their views was either ignorant or quite possibly evil, and that explaining themselves only gave their enemies more ammunition.
What caused this misery? The public schools, the very institutions that “father of the common school” Horace Mann said would create harmony, fostering “a general acquaintanceship…between the children of the same neighborhood….[Where] the affinities of a common nature should unite them together so as to give the advantages of pre‐occupancy and a stable possession of fraternal feelings….”
Specifically at issue was the teaching of the development of life on Earth, a topic that inescapably implicates deep‐seated religious beliefs, and that for many requires either that only creationism or evolution be taught. As ABC News explained, “The argument in Dover is of a special kind, where to let the other side win a little is to lose your own cause entirely.”
Public schooling—in which diverse people are required to pay for a single system of government‐run schools—inherently sets up such “special” conflicts. When two things cannot be simultaneously taught as true, or different values dictate different polices, one side must win, and the other lose.
Alas, such conflicts, while not always as destructive as Dover’s, are not particularly rare. In 2005—the same year as the Dover battle—Cato’s Center for Educational Freedom began collecting examples of conflicts like Dover’s, pitting diverse values, or other intensely personal matters such as racial identity or culture, against each other. The intent was to illustrate that assuming public schooling will create harmony is dangerous, even if it is widely accepted. Indeed, it makes little logical sense: as we’ve learned from history, people do not happily sacrifice the things that make them who they are.
The end product of that initial collection was the report “Why We Fight: How Public Schools Cause Social Conflict.” Later, as we continued to collect conflicts, we decided to put our growing database on the Web, in searchable map form, so that wonks, reporters, and members of the public could see the kinds of very personal battles being fought in public schools, and get a sense that neither side is absolutely “right” nor “wrong,” but all are following their beliefs about what is right. We also wanted people in districts experiencing conflicts, and reporters covering them, to be able to locate places that may have suffered similar conflicts, and perhaps learn how they were ameliorated.
Unfortunately, about nine months ago the application we had been using to generate Cato’s Public Schooling Battle Map was phased out, and ever since we have been working to replace it. But today, in the midst of National School Choice Week, we are ecstatic to report that the new Map is up and running! It is not perfect—we will be adding more features soon—but it is working once again.
The Map contains 2,267 conflicts in thousands of districts and every state. Often the battles are centered at the state level, where everything from sex education standards to history curricula may be determined, meaning no one in the state can escape the conflict. And while the districts on the Map represent only around 9 percent of all districts, they contain roughly 44 percent of the country’s total student population. This is likely a function of our primary information source being media reports, and media tending to be concentrated in places with more people. There are also doubtless some people unhappy with school policies or curricula who do not formally complain, or if they do no reporter hears about it. The Map, then, is at best a baseline of conflicts, not a comprehensive view.
What does this have to do with school choice? Choice is fundamentally different from public schooling; its basic structure is far more conducive to peace and equality. Rather than forcing diverse families and communities to control a single system to get what they want taught, choice enables everyone to seek out what they need and desire. Rather than forcing everyone into a political arena, it lets them peacefully coexist.
Hopefully the Map will reach many eyes, and help people realize that one side winning and the other losing, or maybe both having to sacrifice cherished parts of themselves, should not be the only possible outcomes when people disagree. Especially, we hope that reporters will use the Map, and write more articles like the too‐rare ABC News piece with which this post started. Articles that focus not just on the two sides, like reporting on a boxing match, but that delve into the nature and underlying causes of the conflict. Maybe even articles that turn a spotlight directly on the zero‐sum nature of public schooling. Because there is a more equal, more peaceful, way to structure an education system: school choice.
I recently read Democracy’s Schools: The Rise of Public Education in America by Johann Neem, which in its title delivers the bedrock myth of public schooling: that it is essential to building harmonious, well‐informed, citizens of a democracy. And it’s not just in the title that Neem waxes poetic about the public schools. In his preface he briefly recounts his experience as an immigrant child in Bay Area, California public schools, concluding that “by democratizing access to the kind of liberal arts education that was once reserved for the few, the common schools prepare all young people to take part in the shared life of our democracy.” Neem echoes the rhetoric of Horace Mann, the “father of the common school,” who in the 1830s and 40s brought a missionary zeal to promoting largely uniform, free public schools in Massachusetts.
The problem is that once you delve into the reality of public schooling, it does not at all match the rhetoric. To the credit of Neem and many other historians, they do not duck the reality, even if they seem to ultimately let the rhetoric get the better of them. Neem’s book is focused on pre‐Civil War education, so he may have a different view of later public schooling, but towards the end of the book he offers a sober take on the reality of common schooling:
Schools may have effectively taught the basics, the three ‘Rs and a bit more, but they were less effective at inspiring young people to be citizens and to engage in self‐culture. Instead, students saw schooling as something to get through. While in some cases this led to actual violence between teachers and students, in most cases there was tacit agreement that teachers had the authority to demand students’ compliance, and that students, with the support or pressure of their parents, would have to perform. There is little evidence that students left school wanting more.
Public schools were not forging unified, enlightened citizens, as was the goal, but were largely just a mundane part of life. Which would be fine, except that taxpayer support of uniform public schooling is compelled on the grounds that it is so much more than what it actually is—it is essential for “democracy,” right?—and in that privileged position it has often been worse than just ineffectual at its professed purpose. It has imposed or reinforced inequality and injustice.
I won’t go over all the injustice in detail—you can see where I’ve discussed it in more depth—but remember that for much of its history public schooling often discriminated against minority religions, most notably Roman Catholics. It often either completely barred or segregated African Americans—not just in the South—and in some places Mexican and Asian Americans. It attacked the culturally unifying language of German immigrant communities. It now systematically treats religious Americans as second‐class citizens. And it forces people with different values, cultures, and identities to fight to see which “equal” people win, and which lose.
School choice is fundamentally different from this. Based not on rhetoric about creating social and personal perfection, but on the reality of diverse human beings and communities, choice enables families to pursue the education that they want, that respects their cherished values and cultures, and that removes the threat that those with the most political power will impose their idea of “the good” on everyone.
No doubt believers in public schooling such as Neem are guided by good intentions—they truly seek the ideal of unity and enlightenment for all—but too often, especially if they oppose school choice, they may let their ideals overtake their understanding of reality. And sometimes, it may lead them to forget that liberty is the country’s truly bedrock value.
It is National School Choice Week, a week dedicated to highlighting the power of choice in education, including public and private school choice. All week, we at Cato’s Center for Educational Freedom will be highlighting how choice contributes to social harmony.
Today’s focus is tolerance, spurred in part by a growing critique that private school choice programs enable people to select schools that sow intolerance. Just last week, the Orlando Sentinel ran a series of articles attacking Florida’s private school choice programs because parents can select schools that have policies that some people—including the Sentinel—deem “anti‐LGBT.” The schools and the parents that use them, of course, view their policies differently: as upholding important religious teachings.
Let’s start with some basic private school facts. As I discussed a few months ago, a recent federal study found that private schools are generally safer and have more harmonious climates than public schools. They are less likely to experience gang activity, hate‐related graffiti, bullying, or hate speech. Parents, as you can see below, are also much more satisfied with them.
But surely private schools produce less tolerant students and graduates? After all, they pull kids from inclusive public schools and put them in exclusive settings. The children do not learn to peacefully coexist with those who look or think differently from themselves.
Not really. Research, often after controlling for student characteristics such as family wealth, has typically found that compared to public schoolers, private school students and graduates are as tolerant or more tolerant of others.
One possible reason for this is precisely that choice enables people with different values to choose schools that share them, rather than making diverse communities into combatants forced to fight out whose values will win, and whose will lose. Indeed, right after the Orlando Sentinel ran its articles, pieces appeared in other outlets about parents fighting public school readings they believe force inappropriate, including pro‐LGBTQ, views on their children. We see such throwdowns perpetually in the Sunshine State and nationwide.
Meanwhile, in Georgia and elsewhere, private schools are popping up specifically for LGBTQ kids. Why? Because public schools are often very intolerant places for them, if not by official policy, by school culture. School choice enables LGBTQ or other children who don’t fit in at their assigned public institutions to find schools that are warm and affirming.
Unfortunately, to garner sufficient political support to extend equal school choice—not paying once for public schools and a second time for private—to everyone, people broadly need a basic tolerance for beliefs and opinions different from their own. But human beings seem to have a powerful predilection for demanding equality for themselves, but not those with different values. We are seeing this more and more when it comes to religious schools that disapprove of LGBTQ behavior, but have also seen it from some school choice supporters when programs might include Islamic schools.
True tolerance is allowing others to be treated equally under the law even when you disagree with what they believe. This in no way means you have to approve of their views—freedom also means you can speak out against beliefs you find abhorrent, and shun the people who hold them—but you cannot use the legalized force of government to treat them differently.
Such political tolerance is for the good of all society. Until human beings are omniscient and infallible, it is extremely dangerous to enable one group to forcibly impose on all their conception of a good and proper life. It is an existential threat to everyone’s freedom.