Published August 6, 2021
One of the bigger political missed opportunities during the tumult of last summer was when leading Republicans spent months insisting we “reopen the schools.”
Reopen the schools? The same public schools that were dumping advanced classes in the name of diversity, sacrificing the integrity of girls’ sports in favor of controversial gender ideology, using classrooms as breeding grounds for critical race theory, and kowtowing to teachers unions that refused to follow the science showing in-person classes could be held safely? Those schools?
Kids needed places to learn, and different parents had different trade-offs about safety and values. But very few families felt like they had real agency or any influence. If there was ever a time that clearly demonstrated the failings of a one-size-fits-all school system that increasingly fits none, it was the pandemic.
There’s no reason that insight should remain limited to those extraordinary circumstances. “School choice” can no longer be treated as a form of minority outreach, promising to spring talented poor kids from their failing inner-city schools. As more and more parents voice their dissatisfaction with the conventional public school model, conservatives need to prioritize giving all parents more choices in education.
Some states have begun to act, recognizing parents’ widespread dissatisfaction. According to the American Federation for Children, 17 states introduced or expanded school choice programs in the past year. Homeschooling, too, saw a pandemic-fueled surge, rising 5.6 percentage points in 2020-2021, particularly among minority parents unhappy with how their children were being treated in public schools.
Republicans should be on the forefront of making sure parents have more options for their children’s education. But expanded educational savings accounts or voucher programs, while necessary, are not sufficient for ensuring parents are able to choose between a diverse array of different educational styles, approaches, and curricula. As the Washington Free Beacon reported, even some accreditation bodies for elite private schools are cramming woke curricula into classrooms.
A conservative educational agenda needs to move beyond choice alone and toward a system of educational pluralism in which government dollars are used to support a multiplicity of schooling options. Pluralism is the norm in many other developed countries, is associated with better academic outcomes, and is a more honest way of delivering education, recognizing authentic differences of opinion on issues of moral formation.
It differs from a more libertarian, choice-alone approach to education by empowering communities to offer educational options that reflect their diverse religious, ethnic, and cultural backgrounds. It also preserves a role for the state in monitoring schools for some baseline level of academic performance, coupling high standards with authentic diversity in pedagogical styles.
Thankfully, recent Supreme Court jurisprudence should make it easier for states to experiment in this direction. In 2020’s Espinoza v. Montana, a majority of justices found that “a State need not subsidize private education. But once a State decides to do so, it cannot disqualify some private schools solely because they are religious.” A succeeding case, Carson v. Makin, will be heard by the court this fall and could put the nail in the coffin of state laws that restrict education funding from sectarian or religious institutions. Conservatives should begin laying the groundwork for experiments in pluralism now.
Of course, part of a pluralistic agenda will also mean a certain degree of learning to live and let live. In exchange for a Catholic school receiving support from state tax dollars to be able to teach its understanding of human sexuality, conservatives should defend the rights of, say, schools dedicated to teaching a race-conscious understanding of society.
There will be plenty to disagree with in a pluralistic education system. But it will be an open disagreement, with parents able to choose between options, rather than having public school administrators enforce an opaque code of ethics that too often infringes on parental rights.
As George Washington University professor Samuel Goldman points out in The Week, conservatives fed up with critical race theory in the classrooms can’t be satisfied by playing whack-a-mole whenever an especially egregious example comes up. Devising a concrete framework for increasing the degree of authentic choice for parents needs to become a central part of a conservative governing agenda. School choice needs to be more than a lifeline for poor kids. It should be a robust vision that empowers all families to find the school that offers the right classes and values for each child.
Patrick T. Brown is a fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center and a former senior congressional staffer.