Acton Institute Powerblog

The Wrong Kind of School Choice

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Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime. Be incarnationally present with a man who can’t fish and you’ll teach him how to be “missional” while on an empty stomach.

This update on the ancient Chinese proverb isn’t entirely fair to my fellow Christians (mainly my fellow evangelicals) who believe that one of the most important ways we can help those in need is to being intimately, and often sacrificially, involved in underserved communities. But the maxim’s addendum does capture some of the well-meaning naiveté of missionally oriented activism.

Consider, for example, Christianity Today’s article on “The New School Choice Agenda”, a microtrend piece that explains “why Christians . . . are choosing to send their children to struggling public schools.” All of the people mentioned in the article appear to have a sincere desire to help those in need, so I feel conflicted about using them as an example. But I think the article helps to highlight the difference between activism that is personally fulfilling and policy advocacy that can actually effect change.

As the story notes,

Over the past decade, a group of mostly white, middle-class Christian couples have moved into Church Hill [in Richmond, Virginia], the community served by Chimborazo Elementary School. Unlike most families in Church Hill, these four couples have the financial and social capital to send their kids to private schools or to homeschool. Yet they have chosen otherwise. Building on the firm foundation Principal Burke has laid, they want to help restore a community struggling against generational poverty, and they believe a key component is sending their own children to the community’s public school.

Needless to say, this type of “school choice”—moving in a few white, middle-class Christian children into an impoverished minority public school—will do absolutely nothing to restore “a community struggling against generational poverty.” What it does, however, is reveal one of the perverse ironies of “educational choice.” Those of us in favor of broader educational choices often assume that parents will choose to maximize their child’s educational opportunities. The reality, though, is that if given a wide range of choices, some parents will choose to send their child to a particular school for reasons that have almost nothing to do with education. Some will choose a school based on the sports program or other extra-curricular activities. And some, like the parents mentioned in the CT article, will choose to send their children to a particular school in order to make a socio-theological statement:

Together the group decided to send their kids to Chimborazo. Corey Widmer asks, “What would it communicate to our neighbors if we said, ‘We’re moving into your neighborhood, but we don’t consider your schools and public institutions good enough for our families’?”

What it would communicate is what many of the longtime residents of the area probably already believe: the schools and public institutions aren’t good enough for any families.

Indeed, that seems to be the understanding shared by the new residents too. The CT article spends no time examining the effect the parent’s decision has had on the children (perhaps the impact is minimal since all of the children appear to be in kindergarten!) and instead chooses to focus on how the adults worked to fix their neighbor’s schools and public institutions.

Unfortunately, while the actions they take are important—volunteering, mentoring, choosing to be teachers—they are individualistic stopgap measures for long-term institutional problems.

When these families leave these neighborhoods (as they eventually will) they will leave behind a still-broken school system. While their willingness to move to the struggling communities is noble, what their neighbors need is to be empowered to help their own children. They need the ability to make their own educational choices—and that’s not something that can be accomplished by this “new school choice agenda.”

Joe Carter Joe Carter is a Senior Editor at the Acton Institute. Joe also serves as an editor at the The Gospel Coalition, a communications specialist for the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, and as an adjunct professor of journalism at Patrick Henry College. He is the editor of the NIV Lifehacks Bible and co-author of How to Argue like Jesus: Learning Persuasion from History's Greatest Communicator (Crossway).


  • RogerMcKinney

    I ran across missionaries like that when I was oversees. It’s
    hard to criticize them because their motives are so pure (no sarcasm intended).
    But they seem to be more focused on suffering than on accomplishing their
    stated goal. Missionaries would often seek to serve in the most remote,
    oppressive places where few native people lived while millions of the native
    target population lived in cities that went unreached as well. The lure of
    asceticism and the desire to suffer for Christ is still very strong among certain
    groups of Christians. They will claim that God has directed them to do what
    they do and how do you debate that? To paraphrase Paul, they have zeal without
    knowledge. God gave us the gift of reason, for a reason. Methods and goals
    should match.

  • The missional families are acting out of a sense of personal responsibility following the principles of solidarity and subsidiarity. They are doing righteousness! We should not conflate public policy decisions with the needful and necessary missional activity which communicates faith, hope and love in darkened places. I believe their sense of mission is by God’s calling. Isn’t it possible that in our lifetime none of these policy issues will be solved,( not only possible, but certain) yet we are accountable to God for our personal actions? Kindness to the poor is paramount. Perhaps an article lauding them for their “witness” while affecting changes in public policy with all its built in tensions is warranted. Can we effectively balance these tensions? We must!

  • Pingback: Such a thing as “the wrong kind of school choice”? « Hot Air()

  • layne22

    Your article neglects the possibility that God might actually be with these folks, has called them to do what they are doing, and has plans to transform individuals with whom they interact.  Perhaps they will help educate and empower parents living in the area.  Or perhaps God will show them things that will make them compelling witnesses and activists to help change the broken institution which is our educational system. 
    His ways and thoughts are not ours; they are higher than ours.  He uses the weak and foolish to shame the wise and strong. 

  • Ken- These families, for all their good intentions, do not understand the destruction that teachers unions have imposed on the schools of our inner-city minority children.

    Roger – If you care about helping poor children, vote for vouchers. The marxist “solution” causes the problem. Give these children HOPE! Start a school at your Church

    Watch “Waiting for Superman.”

  • I think the best thing to do is throw more money at these schools, federal money. This gives the federal government more power over what is taught and who teaches it. It’s deplorable to see individual effort try to supplant the power and majesty of the federal government. If this trend spreads, it could spell the end of the federal spoils system, allegiance from client groups to the democrat party and finally the end of the bureaucracy dominated society as we know it. Good to see you trying to nip this kind of thing in the bud.

  • Anon

    God gave these families guardianship (parenthood) of their children to raise as best they can.  Can they honestly say they are doing their best to educate their children? 

    “What would it communicate to our neighbors if we said, ‘We’re moving
    into your neighborhood, but we don’t consider your schools and public
    institutions good enough for our families’?”

    Are they more concerned about what their new neighbors will think than the education of their own children?  Is that the attitude they want to pass on to their community? 

    Also, most of these parents are HIGHLY educated from the best schools themselves.  Why should they deprived their children of the educational excellence they reserved for themselves?!

    • Tim Miller

      I am involved in inner-city ministry. Some of us don’t want to send our kids the message that they “deserve” a better education, a better lifestyle, etc., than their neighbors do. That everything they have is a blessing and God gives blessings along with responsibility.

      For some of my peers, that has actually meant starting high-performing schools in the inner-city. For others, that has meant sending their kids to public schools.

      But for neither group is it merely a feel-good exercise as this article and your comment implies. Actual change is taking place in those communities and in the schools as a result.And what of the kids?Are they better off to go to an exclusive Christian prep school where the religious humanism has replaced secular humanism?
      Everything has tradeoffs. These parents have decided that it is more important that their children have a connection to the community than that they have an exclusively available education. (Maybe you’ve decided the opposite: that your children will have less exposure to poverty so that they can keep the exhaustive schedule at a Christian school. That’s your decision as a parent.)

  • Tim Miller

    Some of us are realists and figure out that we may not be able to solve the whole teacher union mess. But if we can help one school offer quality education in a safe environment, the world does get better for those students, at least. The rest of you have been advocating for vouchers for fifty years, and while I agree with you, it hasn’t happened in most places.