School Choice: Getting 'Left' Aboard

The Milwaukee plan to use taxpayers' money for poor parents to send their children to religious or private schools of their choice has been upheld by the Wisconsin courts. It will be challenged in the US Supreme Court where astute pundits believe it may well be upheld. It is time for the liberal wing of the political spectrum - traditionally opposed to real school choice - to reconsider its position. This will not come easily, but the alternative is to miss the moving train.

The liberal Boston Globe recently lamented that "America's public schools are in trouble" but went on to oppose the Wisconsin decision and ended with this, on behalf of the status quo: "Once taxpayers' money can be used to sidestep the public school system altogether, the death knell for public education in America has been sounded." Such a claim is unfounded and hurts a traditional constituency of liberal Democrats - the poor.

Every Western democracy - except America - has what amounts to publicly funded school choice. And the experience in Canada, Britain, Sweden, and so on invariably reflects that government investment in private education is far from a detriment to the common good. Rather than weakening public education, parental choice has both lowered cost and improved performance all around. Further, more than 90 percent of the African-American parents in Milwaukee who have experienced school choice for their children, strongly favor the plan.

And yet, I appreciate the hesitancy of "the left" about public funding for private or parochial schools. The movement toward real school choice - not simply within the public system - is perceived as a Republican initiative. Conservative proponents argue that education, like everything else, should be governed by what they call a "free" market economy. Schooling should be regulated by supply and demand. But in a system of education that is simply market driven, without built-in protections for the weakest and students most at risk, the latter "go to the wall." Oxford University professor Richard Pring argues that when market forces have free rein in education "individualism replaces community, consumer demand determines what is of value, competition replaces cooperation, utility replaces 'the best that has been thought and said.'" Who wants such a system for our children?

But an argument can be made from "the left" for a program of publicly funded school choice that promotes the inalienable right of every child to a quality education, and has built-in protections enabling the poor to choose as effectively as others. Joseph O'Keefe, professor of education at Boston College, argues that the challenge for proponents of school choice is "to create conditions for full participation of each person, especially those who by reason of social class, race, immigrant status, and low educational attainment could be called disadvantaged." To this end, I suggest the following conditions for a system of publicly funded school choice - boarding "from the left."

* That all schools - public, private, and parochial - be monitored to ensure quality and accountability to "consumers."

* That there be equity of access to every form of schooling, ensuring full participation by all in the educational system of choice.

* That preferential treatment be offered to those educationally disadvantaged.

* That funding for students be equalized across district lines.

* That the human and civil rights of all students be guaranteed, helping to reduce class, ethnic, and racial segregation while enhancing the life of the local community.

* That all parents be empowered for full and informed partnership in the life of their children's school and education.

* That schools reflect a philosophy of education promoting the dignity of each person and the common good of society.

* That schools be committed to a humanizing education, not allowing consumer demand to determine what is of value but educating so that students become "fully alive" human beings.

Such a program, far from sounding the death knell for public schools, would herald a new day for US education, which means for all children - surely the first priority for left, right, and center.

* Thomas H. Groome is professor of theology and education at Boston College. He is author of 'Educating for Life: A Spiritual Vision for Every Teacher and Parent' (Thomas More Press, 1998).

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