Ever since COVID-19 gave parents a direct Zoom feed into the challenges faced by the public education system in North America, there’s been growing momentum for policy change. Even The Economist, often skeptical of school choice, recently reported on the “new wave” of education reform. The movement has intensified, with debates about critical race theory increasingly becoming the focus of legislation and litigation.
Oklahoma recently pushed the debate into new territory with a proposal for a Catholic charter school primarily funded by taxpayers.
“The key question in this case is not whether a charter would help or harm local education,” writes Charles Russo for The Conversation, “but whether explicitly religious instruction at charter schools is constitutional.”
As debates continue, those in favor of school choice argue that enabling parents to select the best school and curricula for their children is a logical expression of the ancient principle in loco parentis. In the context of schooling, the Latin phrase means teachers act on behalf of parents and answer to them.
An alternate, more practical argument is that competition between schools produces better accountability, greater innovation, and more options that a public education monopoly is hard pressed to match.
Those opposed to school choice typically argue that a single public education system provides greater equality for all students and helps overcome class, religious, and other social distinctions. In their view, a uniform education ensures no child is left behind.
While this side of the debate avoids any suggestion of “indoctrination,” the National Education Association tweeted last November that “educators love their students and know better than anyone what they need to learn and to thrive.” They are enthusiastically opposed to the principle of in loco parentis.
However, the politics of education hinge on a false dichotomy between public and private spheres. The framing itself is unhelpful. In advancing the debate, we need to celebrate choice and diversity in education, both inside and outside government-run institutions. All schools serve the public and contribute to the common good, and our systems should reflect that.
As a parent and a professional, I’ve never been a neutral observer to this debate. I was raised in a community that valued Christian education. While all but my elementary education took place in the public school system, as a father, I chose independent options and was prepared to pay for them. My time at Cardus Education also reflects my views. I served as the original program director for Cardus, which has become a leader in studying educational pluralism.
As an advocate for this pluralistic approach, I believe that every form of education, including government-run schools, should in theory enable parental rights. But in our current system, parents often have to opt out of public institutions to achieve meaningful expression of those rights. That’s a huge flaw.
Part of the remedy is redefining public schooling to include all education that contributes to the commonwealth. When we use the term education system, we shouldn’t think about a single network of schools (government-run or otherwise) where “private” ones lie outside that space. Instead, we need to see all schools as participating in the development of the next generation of workers, neighbors, and voters who will together build a flourishing society.
Christians are among the many groups with a vested interest in seeing private education folded into public systems. We want faith-learning integration in the classroom, and we want that integrated approach to be legitimated, not marginalized.
Practically, what would it look like to reframe the debate? Beyond the paradigm shift in our thinking and conversations, pulling on a few policy levers would make an outsized difference.
First, end redlining in public school districts by opening boundaries between schools. Second, don’t prohibit the growth of public charter schools. They allow innovators to meet localized needs. Third, use mechanisms like education savings accounts (ESAs) to provide opportunity for more students (especially the socioeconomically disadvantaged) to access independent or faith-based schools. And, finally, use ESAs or tax-credit programs to support the work happening in the fastest-growing school sector: homeschooling.
There’s little doubt that education is changing significantly. Advocates of independent education celebrated 2021 as “the year of school choice,” with 18 separate initiatives passed that year. The movement isn’t without struggle, however. School choice promoters recently faced setbacks in Texas and Georgia even as they celebrated victories in Iowa, Utah, and Arkansas.
It will take time to see the impact of these policy reforms, but we can get a sneak peek by studying initiatives that have been in place for decades. The city of Milwaukee, for example, has two 5-star rated schools with significant turnaround stories.
At St. Marcus Lutheran, which was near closing in 1998, vouchers made it possible to increase enrollment over time from 100 students to about 1,000. The school serves a primarily African American community in North Milwaukee. The private Christian school Augustine Prep, which started in 2017 in the predominantly Latino South Side, will soon be educating up to 2,400 students. Since its opening, the surrounding community has seen a significant decrease in crime rates.
In the midst of these developments, groups on both sides of the issue continue to cultivate public support for their causes. But making any progress will be difficult unless we move beyond binary debates into a new, inclusive space.
As I watch the conversation from my perch at Cardus, I am more and more convinced that the key to meaningful change involves replacing the framework of public-versus-private with an overall respect for each other’s diverse methods of serving the common good.
Ray Pennings is the executive vice president of the nonpartisan think tank Cardus.