The Moral Logic of School Choice

The U.S. broadly respects parental rights—except with regard to schooling.


The Moral Logic of School Choice

Proponents of school choice offer many arguments for charter authorizations, vouchers and education tax credits. For parents, the reasons are often straightforward. Some cite better discipline, dress codes and an emphasis on teaching their traditional or religious values. Others mention plentiful school supplies, increased personal attention or a shorter commute to school.

Policy analysts may point to better test scores, as well as higher graduation and retention rates, than at the underperforming public schools students would otherwise attend. They believe increased competition for pupils and dollars would force public schools to improve, benefiting everyone. Fiscal hawks may add that charter, parochial and private schools spend government dollars more efficiently, or that a one-size-fits-all education system is as antiquated as Model T production.

More than a few social-justice warriors argue that affluent parents already have de facto school choice, since they can afford private schools or expensive homes in strong public districts. Children from poor and minority communities, therefore, disproportionately benefit from initiatives to expand school choice.

All of this may well be true. But there is a more fundamental and practical reason to favor school choice: It empowers parents to select the environment that fits each student’s particular aptitudes, learning styles and preferences. Since parents know their kids better than any government bureaucracy, they are best positioned to make such decisions.

To proponents of school choice, discerning why voters or activists support it might seem inconsequential. Who cares as long as they agree? But the motivations at work have important implications for how these policies are implemented. That’s especially true now that school choice is being embraced by education reformers in both political parties, including in struggling urban school districts.

Consider two mentalities. First, Chamber of Commerce types prioritize economic growth and skilled workers, so they are more comfortable with a top-down approach. That means they may embrace universal standardized tests and Common Core, while favoring flexibility on teacher credentials and tenure. They want measurable gains in literacy and numeracy, and they are open-minded about the means to achieve results.

The upshot is that if test scores don’t improve quickly enough, or if dropout rates don’t plummet, these people won’t object to closing the charter school, ending the voucher funding, and trying another reform. This was the thinking behind previous experiments with smaller class sizes, more technology and new facilities.

Conservatives, on the other hand, favor a bottom-up approach. For them, economic growth is not the fundamental reason for universal public education—otherwise, employers could simply replace state schools by sponsoring vocational training centers. Rather, they see schools as an essential element of a self-governing republic, since citizens must have the critical-thinking skills to hire and fire their leaders.

In this view, choice is the ultimate form of accountability, and letting parents pick their children’s schools is valuable in itself, irrespective of outcomes. Parents’ decisions must therefore be respected even when they are unconventional. As a result, conservatives who take this view are less enthusiastic about allowing technocrats to punish voucher schools that underperform.

Schools that don’t take vouchers are much less likely to come under government interference, beyond the enforcement of minimal standards. Regulators argue, however, that any acceptance of taxpayer dollars, including through vouchers, makes schools subject to tougher state scrutiny. But this logic essentially forces private schools that take vouchers to import the bureaucracy that parents were fleeing in the first place.

The bigger question is this: Why doesn’t the government feel compelled to interfere in schools where the parents are paying the tuition directly? Why does the state respect that some parents are capable of choosing what is best for their children, while acting as though other parents aren’t? A few years ago, a New Orleans union official let slip what many opponents of school choice are apparently thinking: “If I’m a parent in poverty, I have no clue” when it comes to making these educational decisions. After this comment, African-American mothers participating in a pilot school-choice program were outraged. They responded in no uncertain terms that they loved their children, made decisions for them every day, and knew better than the bureaucrats what was best for them.

Many school-choice efforts have created win-win scenarios: Test scores improve, parents are happy, and reformers are united across ideological lines. The harder question, which is being raised more often as reforms expand in scope and geography, is whether and when the regulatory state should override parental choice for the supposed benefit of the child.

The U.S. has purposefully adopted a deferential, though not absolute, attitude toward parental rights. The government gives parents wide leeway to make choices about their children’s health, diets and religious practices. Regulators interfere narrowly only in extreme cases to prevent permanent harm, and even then parents have recourse to the judicial system. Shouldn’t parents get the same respect when deciding how their children should be educated?

Mr. Jindal served as governor of Louisiana, 2008-16.

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