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Educational choice is a social justice issue

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Note: This article is part of the ‘Principles Project,’ a list of principles, axioms, and beliefs that undergird a Christian view of economics, liberty, and virtue. Click here to read the introduction and other posts in this series.

The Principle: #5F — Because protecting parental authority is an issue of social justice, society should promote policies that allow families the highest degree of freedom in making choices about the education of their children.

The Explanation: Social justice is a term and concept frequently associated with the political left, and too often used to champion positions that are destructive for society and antithetical to justice. Yet for Christians the term is too valuable to be abandoned. Conservatives need to rescue it from its erroneous connotations and restore its true meaning. True social justice is obtained, as my colleague Dylan Pahman has helpfully explained, “when each member, group, and sphere of society gives to every other what is due.”

A key sphere of society in which social justice is in desperate need of restoration is education. The poor deserve the same freedom to obtain a quality education that is too often reserved for those wealthy enough to rescue their children from failing schools. Children deserve a quality education and parents deserve the right to choose such an education or their offspring. For these reason school choice should be considered a matter of social justice.

The term school choice (or educational choice) refers to programs that give parents the power and opportunity to choose the schools their children attend, whether public, private, parochial, or homeschool. While there are some excellent public schools in America, many students are trapped in schools with inadequate facilities, substandard curriculum, and incompetent teachers. Most parents, however, cannot afford to pay for education twice—once in taxes and again in private school tuition. School choice programs empower parents by letting them use public funds set aside for education on programs that will best serve their children.

As Archbishop Charles J. Chaput says, lack of a quality education is a common thread among persons in severe poverty. And once stuck in deep poverty it’s very hard for anyone to escape due to the lack of skills needed to secure and hold employment:

Few things are more important to people in poverty than ensuring their children’s education as a path to a better life. If the future of Philadelphia and Pennsylvania depends on an educated, productive public – and it obviously does – then providing every means to ensure a good education system becomes a matter of social justice. Prudent lawmakers from both major parties have understood this for years. They need to feel our support in the voting booth and throughout their public service.

The point is this: Proper funding for public schools is clearly important. But experience has already shown that this can’t be the only strategy because it doesn’t work for many of the students who most urgently need a good education. It’s therefore vital that our elected officials serve the real education needs of the poor by supporting school choice.

But it’s not just poor parents that need the right to control their children’s education. As Pope Francis wrote in Amoris Laetitia, “. . . I feel it important to reiterate that the overall education of children is a ‘most serious duty’ and at the same time a ‘primary right’ of parents.” All parents should have the opportunity to choose an education for their children they deem to be satisfactory. The government may, for example, be satisfied with judging schools based on standardized test scores. But most parents want more. As economist Tyler Cowen says,

[P]arents may like school choice for reasons other than test scores. To draw from the first link above, parents may like the academic programs, teacher skills, school discipline, safety, student respect for teachers, moral values, class size, teacher-parent relations, parental involvement, and freedom to observe religious traditions, among other facets of school choice.

Perhaps now is the time to remind you that how the buyers like the product is the fundamental standard used by economists for judging public policy? That is not to say it is the final standard all things considered, but surely economists should at least start here and report positive parental satisfaction as a major feature of school choice programs. In fact, I’ll say this: if you’re reading a critique of vouchers and the critic isn’t willing to tell you up front that parents typically like this form of school choice, I suspect the critic isn’t really trying to inform you.

Since the money for public schools is funneled through the government, the issue is often framed as if the government is the “buyer” of educational goods and services. If the faceless, impersonal bureaucracy is the “customer” then perhaps it does make sense to have standardized testing—which lumps all students together and reduces them to a statistical metric—as the criterion for satisfaction. But if we believe children belong to parents, and not the state, then we should allow the true customers of public education to determine if they are satisfied with the product.

“Parents will not be perfectly informed consumers of public schools,” says economist Arnold Kling. “But bureaucrats in Washington will be much less well informed.”

As Kling adds, “Perhaps the [school choice] movement ought to be called the ‘Make schools accountable to parents’ movement.”

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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).

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