Acton Commentary

Moral Formation and the School Choice Movement


Former presidential candidate Rick Santorum summed up the problem with public schooling in America when he repeatedly called it an “outdated factory model.” Part of Santorum’s purpose was to draw greater attention to the simple fact that parents bear the primary responsibility for the education of their children.

Mississippi State Senator Michael Watson, an advocate for school choice, notes that when it comes to education, “Government does not take responsibility without taking power.” Over time, the government has superseded the parental role in education. The effects are disastrous, not just for education but for moral formation too.

The battle for meaningful reform in public education has been a long and protracted one spanning decades, but states, not the federal government, are turning the tide.

In 2011 at least a half dozen states enacted school choice reforms. In Louisiana, over half of public school students will now be eligible for vouchers. The school choice movement has been steadily making inroads because parents are demanding options and greater control over the moral formation and education of their children. The groundswell of support for reform has come from families and not elected officials or the political class.

Reformers have argued that greater choice -- meaning open enrollment in public school districts -- vouchers, and charter schools, will provide competition for students, thus improving the quality of education. Virtually every study that has tested that theory has backed up the claim that schools that compete for students and tax dollars improve.

There has been a substantial shift away from the thinking that only substantial spending increases in the status quo public education model will improve education. Jay Greene in Education Myths cuts to the heart of the issue, “If money were the solution, the problem would already be solved . . . . We’ve doubled the per pupil spending, adjusting for inflation, over the last 30 years, and yet the schools aren’t better.”

U.S. courts have also ruled in favor of voucher and school choice initiatives. Some opponents have tried to argue that tax credits allowing for school choice violate the First Amendment, which protects religious freedom. However, this is a fundamental misunderstanding of religious liberty, as parents, not government, end up endorsing the religious schools of their choosing.

Education, moral formation, and religious expression are in need of greater space from government instead of further secularized encroachment. It is not the government’s role to inhibit the free exercise of faith; rather it has a duty to encourage and uphold it.

Separation of school and state provides greater educational opportunities for an increasing complex global economy. The “factory model” has not adequately educated millions of public school students. Walter Russell Mead commented on the factory model of education: “Don’t we want to teach our children to do something smarter than move in large groups by the clock and the bell, follow directions and always color between the lines?”

Defenders of educational reform and school choice know there are still miles to go given the entrenched opposition from the National Education Association (NEA) and other powerful special interests committed to doubling down on reform-blocking campaigns.

Politicians and elected officials like to talk about equity and fairness, but millions of students with socio-economic disadvantages are denied fairness of opportunity when it comes to education. This is true simply because of the neighborhoods and school districts where they live. It is no wonder that school choice is often referred to as the “civil rights issue of our time.” However, it is also an important religious issue. Educational reform allows for parents to play a greater role in their child’s education, but it will also help strengthen the moral formation of a society in disarray.