School Choice

For today’s Round Table, Nick the Editor wants us to answer this question: “Are school choice programs fair to tax payers since they support private religious schools that may discriminate against tax payer beliefs?”

The topic is often framed that way, but let’s flesh out some details so we can clearly see everything is at stake. Let’s say that Marjorie is an engineer who works for a state agency, and she is a fierce advocate for all things scientific. She has a dog named Carl and a cat named Sagan, and she also has a son who is enrolled in a private school that specializes in preparing students for top-ranked universities and for STEM careers. The tuition for the school is pretty steep, and the morning drop-off and afternoon pick-up adds an hour to her commute, but she feels that it’s more than worth it. However, what irritates Marjorie to no end is when politicians talk about using her tax dollars to support private schools that teach creationism. After all, why should she be required to fund something that goes against everything she believes?

But, if we’re going to get the true and full picture, then we also need to come to grips with the fact that this is precisely the sort of thing that has been happening to religious conservatives for the past several decades. Through their taxes, they have been expected to underwrite public school activities that often contradict their beliefs.

So let’s say that Magdalena is a cashier at a big box store; she is also a traditional Roman Catholic. She attends the Latin Mass at least once a month, and, before she got married, she thought seriously about becoming a nun. One day, Magdalena gets an email from her daughter’s public school announcing that all students will be participating in an event that is designed to educate young people about the value of sexual diversity. Magdalena prefers that her daughter receive that kind of instruction at home or in her parish; however, when she speaks to her daughter’s teacher and with the school’s principal, she is told that the event is mandatory and that opting out is an expression of bigotry.

That sort of thing happens all the time. Nevertheless, the folks who mold our culture and moderate our conversations worry a whole lot more about Marjorie than they do about Magdalena—and that’s reflected in the way this Round Table question is framed. Of course, the big irony is that while we’re discussing whether it’s fair to use Marjorie’s tax dollars to subsidize the teaching of creationism, no one is suggesting that her son should be forced to study Intelligent Design. However, not only are Magdalena’s taxes being used to finance the promotion of sexual diversity, her daughter is also being required to learn about that particular perspective.

The simple reality is that, when it comes to discriminating against tax payer beliefs, public schools do that way more often—and, at times, much more blatantly—than private schools. But there is also a further level of discrimination at work in these sorts of situations.

Because while Magdalena has often explored the possibility of enrolling her daughter in private school, she just can’t swing the cost. A voucher or a tax credit scholarship wouldn’t cover the tuition entirely, but those programs would make it manageable. However, Magdalena does not live in one of the fourteen states that have voucher programs or in one of the seventeen states that have tax credit scholarships. So, because Magdalena lives in a particular school district within a particular state, and because home schooling just really isn’t an option for her family, she has no choices when it comes to her daughter’s education; her daughter has to attend the local public school.

Of course, Marjorie also lives in a specific school district, but her son does not have to attend those schools because she makes more money than Magdalena. Now Marjorie isn’t wealthy—in fact, she makes all kinds of sacrifices in order to keep her son in that private school. Nevertheless, her income gives her choices that Magdalena and her daughter will never have.

Which brings us back around to the issue of taxes: In America, we pool our money together, and we use that money to uphold and protect and enhance the quality of our national life. That big pool of money is called taxes. And, yeah, we often gripe about how much we have to contribute to that pool, and we are often appalled at how the money actually gets spent. But, surely, we should all be able to agree that one of the best investments we can make with that money is to guarantee that everyone in the country has access to the kind of education they desire.

But it’s that last phrase—‘the kind of education they desire’—that’s the real kicker. Because when it comes to education, the folks who mold our culture and moderate our conversations just don’t trust people to make good choices for their children. And they especially don’t trust people like Magdalena, people who are religious conservatives.

I mean, who are we kidding? There are undoubtedly a lot of lower income folks out there who are not at all conservative and are not in any way religious, and they would like to send their children to a secular private school. However, progressive politicians and professional educators and elite media types consistently oppose school choice programs even for those people. Because if we use our tax dollars to support secular private schools, then we will also have to use our tax dollars to fund private religious schools—and, for the folks in the upper echelons of our society, that’s just not acceptable.

In fact, when you get right down to it, the conflict here isn’t actually about religion; it’s not even about money; it’s about the nature and purpose of education. For religious conservatives, education is about forming a child’s character. Because when a child’s identity is grounded in truth and beauty and goodness, then that child will become a young person who is thoughtful and humble and kind.

But the folks who mold our culture and moderate our conversations have come to regard education as a means of social engineering—as a way to make sure that everyone thinks approved thoughts and speaks in authorized words and undertakes only acceptable actions. And when you’re trying to get everyone to conform to your idea of what society should look like, any deviation from that norm is going to be seen as a threat.