A Progressive Case for Vouchers

by Charles L. Glenn, Boston University

[a presentation to the New York Chapter, American Jewish Committee, October 1998]

There are two convincing reasons why Progressives should support educational vouchers. They go by the names of 'Freedom' and 'Justice.'

There is also a compelling reason why Progressives should be closely involved with working out the way in which voucher programs will be designed and implemented. We are rightly not convinced that it is appropriate to simply “let the market lip” with no regard for the consequences, that government should wash its hands of its responsibility of ensuring that justice is done, in education, for those who are most vulnerable to unfair treatment, most likely to lack advocates in their interest, most in need of extra support.

Public funding for schools which are not operated by government is coming in the United States, as it came decades ago in other Western democracies: in Canada, Australia and Britain, in France, the Low Countries, Germany, Spain and Denmark, and as it has come over the past decade in Sweden and in the countries of the former Soviet bloc. Indeed, public funding for schools which are not operated by government-we call them “charter schools”-is the hottest education reform of the Nineties, supported by Democrats and Republicans alike. All that has been excluded in the US, apparently, is schools which reflect the religious convictions and choices of parents, and now parents in Cleveland and in Milwaukee are receiving public funds to send their children to such schools as well. Can anyone doubt that more cities and states will follow?

The question for Progressives, I suggest, is whether they will join in the discussions through which these programs are shaped, or persist in a state of denial while others make all the running. They might pause to reflect that in none of the countries in Western Europe where the Left are now in political control have they proposed to abolish the present arrangements for parent choice of religious schools; it is reported in The New York Times of October 20, 1998 that the first ex-communist premier of Italy is expected to be more generous to Catholic schools than have been any of his Christian-Democrat predecessors.

But isn't this a question of 'Church and State'? No, that is a fundamental misconception which only emerged in the Fifties. The historical record is clear: opposition to public funding for religious schools-and even to their existence, as with the Ku Klux Klan's campaigns for the “little red schoolhouse” in the 1920s--was based on anti-immigrant sentiment. The Protestant majority felt profoundly threatened by millions of Catholic and Jewish immigrants, and the goal of preventing children from following their parents' unAmerican ways motivated legislation from the 1850s on blocking public funding to non-government schools. These debates-which never mentioned the First Amendment-were an echo of political struggles in Europe, especially France, where for some decades the Catholic Church fought against Liberal governments with control of the schools the most important pawn in those battles. But in the United States it is not the Catholic Church which is creating the demand for religious schools-the Catholic “market share” dropped dramatically in recent decades-but millions of parents, many of whom are Evangelical Protestants, African-American Protestants, Muslims ... or Jews. Thousands of new schools have been established since the 1970s, and the great majority of these have a religious character.

Isn't it “unconstitutional” to provide public funds for the education of children in religious schools? Curiously, while the First Amendment privileges the free exercise of religion as especially worthy of protection, the effect of Supreme Court decisions over the past forty years has been to treat religion as the only forbidden motivation for school choice. Parents may choose among publicly-funded schools because of ambition for their children, or pedagogical theory, or fear of minority children, but they have not been able to choose because of religious conviction. This reverses the legal situation in other Western democracies, which privilege and support school choice based upon religious convictions over other motivations. Such policies recognize that religion has a way of encapsulating, for many parents, a whole range of hopes, moral convictions, and loyalties that they want above all to transmit to their children.

The signs are more positive for flexibility on the part of the courts now than they have been in many years. The Rosenberger case, requiring that government act on the basis of “content neutrality” between religious and non-religious activities, the Agostini case (here in New York City), finding that secular educational goals can be met within religious schools, and other recent decisions create strong prospects that the door will continue to open. Public funds are already going to religious day-care programs and adolescent programs, as well as to colleges, without First Amendment barriers, and the Charitable Choice provision of the federal welfare law has created a whole new ball-game. But I'm not here to argue the legal case, but the policy case, for a voucher system of funding education.

I said at the start that there were two principled reasons why Progressives should support and work for a well-designed and equitable voucher system. The first, I said, is Freedom. Parents have a fundamental right, in a free society, to decide about the values that their children will be taught in school. 'Mat tight has been recognized by a whole string of international covenants, beginning with the U. N. Declaration on Human Rights (1948), which states that “parents have a prior right to choose the kind of education that shall be given to their children” (article 26, 3). Similarly, the 1966 International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights guarantees “the liberty of parents ... to choose for their children schools, other than those established by public authorities, which conform to such minimum educational standards as may be laid down or approved by the State and to ensure the religious and moral education of their children in conformity with their own convictions” (article 13,3).

It is on the basis of this fundamental human right, and not of any theory about “markets,” that virtually all the other Western democracies provide public funding to non-government schools that meet public standards and that are selected freely by parents.

Nor is this anchored only in the abstractions of human rights, but also in a series of Supreme Court decisions, notably in Pierce v. Society of Sisters (1925), where the Court famously declared that “the fundamental theory of liberty upon which all governments in this Union repose excludes any general power of the state to standardize its children by forcing them to accept instruction from public teachers only.” But, as Progressives have argued vigorously in the case of abortion, a right which you cannot afford to exercise is no right at all!

If Freedom demands that we allow parent choice, then, Justice demands that we support and promote it, especially for low-income families and those otherwise condemned to send their children-under mandatory attendance laws-to schools which they are convinced are doing or win do them harm. The learning gap in our society based upon social class and race is larger than the gap in other comparable societies. That is, the achievement gap between high-scoring and low-scoring schools in the United States is substantially larger than that in other countries with many immigrant children in their schools, like Australia or the Netherlands or France.

This is not the place to rehearse the evidence-available a number of countries--that schools based upon a religious viewpoint tend to be especially effective serving at-risk pupils. James Coleman and, more recently, Anthony Bryk of the University of Chicago found that the achievement growth benefits of Catholic school attendance are especially strong for students who are in one way or another disadvantaged: lower socioeconomic status, black, or Hispanic. The dropout rates from Catholic schools are strikingly lower than those from public schools or other private schools. This reduced dropout rate holds both for those who show no signs of problems as sophomores and for those who as sophomores are at risk of dropping out. Contrary to the conventional wisdom that Catholic schools simply do not admit or quickly expel potential troublemakers, the studies have found that they rely much more heavily upon socialization to maintain order and motivation. Bryk and his colleagues found that 'the achievement of students in Catholic high schools was less dependent on family background and personal circumstances than was true in the public sector“ and 'the achievement advantage of white over minority students ... increases in public high schools during the last two years of schooling, whereas the minority gap actually decreases in Catholic schools.”

In a society driven by educational credentials, what happens during the years of formal schooling has a dramatic life-long impact. If religious schools can offer an education that might make all the difference to a poor child or youth, it is unjust to make it impossible for their families to choose such schools, because we--who are able to do so much for our own children (including deciding where we will live)--see these schools not as benevolent but as a threat to democracy. They are, instead, a threat to an undemocratic monopoly system of vested interests.

Nothing could be more futile than to debate--as so many do--about whether an abstraction called “school choice” is a good or a bad thing. Choice is massively present in American education, and those who exercise it (most parents including those with children in public schools-and most public school teachers who are parents) would not willingly give it up. A report by the National Center for Education Statistics found that, in 1993, of families with incomes over $50,000, 72 percent had their children in private schools, public schools of choice (such as magnet schools), and schools which they had selected through residence decisions.

But, like many of the goods which we value, school choice is unevenly distributed in a way which reflects the income, the influence, and the sophistication of different groups in society. For that reason, it should be no surprise that support for school choice, as reflected in many surveys, is strongest among those who have the least opportunity to exercise it, and for whom the stakes are highest. The strongest support for parent choice of schools, including private schools with a religious identity, is among urban and minority respondents with school-aged children

Those who oppose public policies that would allow poor parents to choose what schools their children will attend, claiming that this would undermine the common public school and thus divide American society, do not apply that argument consistently. After all, if the unity of our society requires that children from different backgrounds attend school together, why should we allow the affluent to enroll their children in private schools or escape to the suburbs? Why not forbid private schools and mandate metropolitan school desegregation? We have not heard such proposals from the defenders of the public school monopoly, nor are we likely to. After all, big-city public schoolteachers are twice as likely as the general public to put their own children in private schools, and have strongly resisted residency laws requiring them to live within the school districts which employ them. Few--perhaps none--of their allies in Congress and the White House send their own children to the District of Columbia public schools.

However, there are significant negative effects from the present non-system of parent choice of schools, under which individual choices tend to increase racial and class segregation and the funding and taxation inequities between cities and suburbs. The question for Progressives, then, is not whether to have choice, but how to ensure that choice has equitable and socially-beneficial effects? This is what I've been devoting most of my attention to in recent years; it is a rather lonely position to be in because most of those I would expect to be my allies are committed to maintaining the government monopoly on public education at all costs.

I will not go into details here about how to make choice function equitably, but want to close by noting that nothing that I have said suggests that we should abandon public education in the slightest respect. In the first place, public education does not have to be provided in schools owned and operated by local government, as the charter school movement amply demonstrates. Public education is education which is available to all without cost and which is publicly accountable for fairness and for quality, whether provided by government or not. I wish, indeed, that all of our government-operated public schools met that standard of accountability!

In the second place, the existing public schools should be set free to function with greater autonomy and focus, freed from the smothering bureaucracy which crushes the education out of them I was in charge of urban education and civil rights for Massachusetts for 21 years, through all three Dukakis terms, and finally grew convinced that lasting improvements could be achieved only through fundamental structural changes. That's why I became an early supporter of charter schools, and eventually of vouchers. All public schools should be as autonomous as charter schools and should be eligible for vouchers. To the extent that they areas good as their advocates claim, they will suffer neither enrollment nor financial losses. When we abolished individual school attendance zones in Boston and a dozen other Massachusetts cities, public schools were suddenly forced to demonstrate to parents that they could serve their children effectively. Some closed, many improved. But the improvements were more limited than they should have been, because the schools were still tangled in the compulsion of any bureaucratic system to require that all of its parts behave precisely the same.

Abraham Lincoln pointed out that a nation could not survive half slave and half free. The truth applies to a nation's educational system as well. I am not for vouchers as a way for some lucky children to escape from a bankrupt public education system, but as a way to transform that system, to abolish its choking monopolies and reshape it in ways consistent with a free society.