Acton Commentary

It's About Justice: The Moral Case for School Choice


Last week a small victory was won toward freedom in educational choice. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled on June 28 that private schools could receive direct and indirect funding from the public as long as such funding is distributed based on neutral criteria ( i.e ., criteria–not intentions--that neither promote nor hinder religion). While this decision does not alone clear the way for school choice, it is reassuring that the Court’s ruling could indicate a trend.

At issue is equality of opportunity. There is immense evidence that government-monopoly schools perpetuate inequality of opportunity for the poor and marginalized.

Most will agree that levels of opportunity in life depend in no small measure on the quality of education received when young. Despite the efforts of hard-working teachers and well-intentioned administrators, many public schools have failed to provide even a basic education to their students, fueling numerous social problems. When a system is faltering and shows no signs of improving, real reform must be pursued. As described by Notre Dame Law School Professors Nicole and Richard Garnett, “The claim that ‘we need your child to prop up the public schools’ is, from a moral point of view, no more palatable, and should be no more convincing, than any other hostage-taking argument.” (“School Choice, the First Amendment, and Social Justice,” 2000) By contrast, school choice is a reform that truly serves social justice.

In a system of real school choice, parents could use tax credits, vouchers, or other means of support to send their children to private/religious or charter schools, in addition to the public schools. Parents should also have the option of home-schooling.

Many public schools do reasonably well in their basic mission, which is to instruct children in several academic areas. Even in these better situations, parents should not be denied the freedom to choose a learning institution. Teacher Bill Harlan states: “I would go so far as to say that all parents–whether of gifted students, poor academic performers, or all shades in between–would leap at the chance to be able to shop around, find out which school best fits their child’s needs, and send their child there.” (“All Parents Want to Improve Their Children’s Education,” 2000) In many cases, it can be shown that private schools offer superior education. Denying a child the opportunity to learn in a quality academic environment based solely on geographic location or economic status of that child’s family is contrary to justice.

More choice can also facilitate a greater understanding among children of diverse backgrounds. While critics of private schools often say that these institutions create a more “segregated” environment by accepting only “like” students, evidence has shown that private schools tend to be much more integrated than public schools whose student populations consist of children from the same geographic area (and thus, usually, the same social-economic make-up):

[R]eligious schools have consistently succeeded in breaking down the economic and racial barriers that still divide students in our public schools, turning underprivileged and disaffected youngsters into aspiring young scholars. (Garnetts, 2000)

In addition, parents who prefer religious schools usually want their children to not only learn in a safe environment but to gain a moral understanding of life as well as academic prowess. According to John Coons,

Today those who can afford to do so often choose a school precisely because it preserves and projects a certain belief. The non-rich are presently denied this medium of expression. They are conscripted for schools that impose upon them a narrow curriculum produced by a political process. (“School Choice as Simple Justice,” 1992)

This is an aspect not offered by public schools, and it should justly be available for all families to consider.

A majority of private schools experience more racial, social, and economic diversity than do public schools. Even so, it is essential to note the importance of diversity among institutions in our society. Christian schools administer education from a moral, religious worldview; charter schools may focus on a particular academic specialty of their students. That particular students may choose a school that closely meets their needs or preferences does not mean they are being “segregated” from students of different schools. Participation in community, church, and civic activities ensures that children encounter varying perspectives in addition to any schooling that they may receive. If diversity is to be celebrated, it is right to recognize the diversity between institutions (schools).

Is it socially just to force poor families to send their children to failing schools, simply based on the locations of their homes? Is it just to force taxpayers to continue funding failing projects with no input on how their taxes are to be used? Is it just to place a bureaucratic system as a higher priority than children? The answer to all of these questions is a resounding “no.” School choice is an idea whose time has come.