The American debate over school choice dates back at least as far back as the 1970s, a decade after Milton Friedman published Capitalism and Freedom, in which he argued for the establishment of school vouchers that families could use to send their children to a public or private school of their choosing. Friedman’s argument gained influence in libertarian circles because of its resemblance to market systems that included competition. Social conservatives liked the idea of using tax revenues toward tuition at parochial schools.
Progressives have mostly rejected the school choice movement because of its potential to undermine public schools as well as exacerbate inequalities and segregation. But progressives have failed to appreciate just how bad the current system has been at achieving the goals they so vehemently defend. Instead of rejecting school choice altogether, they should embrace the beneficial aspects of a choice system alongside a specific set of revisions that address their concerns.
In the U.S., most funding for public schools comes from local property taxes. This system is both uniquely American and uniquely terrible. It has led to greater inequality and segregation and less social mobility than in other industrialized countries. Poor communities have less property tax revenue than affluent communities and, as a result, less funding for schools. Affluent communities can invest in buildings, facilities, and advanced technology that poor communities cannot afford. More importantly, affluent school districts are able to attract better teaching talent by offering higher salaries and less stressful working conditions. As a result, the U.S. education system exacerbates the inequalities that disadvantaged children enter primary school with. Middle- and upper-class families have a way to get their children out of bad schools: They can pick up and move to the suburbs. Since poorer families are less mobile and often cannot afford to move to suburbia, their choices are limited.
Progressives should be up in arms over these injustices. Most have a “system justification” bias — an inclination to defend the status quo as fair and just. They believe in public schools and they feel the need to defend them against conservative attacks. Consider the conservative critique that public schools are “inefficient.” Progressives typically, and erroneously, respond that efficiency is not important. If a system is inefficient, that means there is a free lunch on the table waiting to be eaten.
However, some progressive criticisms of a “free-market” voucher system are strong. Affluent parents could supplement their voucher with extra income to send their children to better schools, worsening inequalities. The system could become more segregated by race, class, and religion. Teaching creationism in the classroom could undermine scientific education. In general, students' exposure to varying ideas and cultures could narrow.
Progressives can maintain these concerns without rejecting school choice altogether. Vouchers could be means-tested, or affluent parents could be restricted from using their own incomes alongside vouchers to pay for tuition. A school that accepts vouchers could be required to accept regulations on its curriculum, such as the teaching of creationism in biology. Most importantly, the government could offer additional financial incentives to schools that achieve a desired level of integration.
I share progressives’ concerns about the risks of a free market in education. But a free market is not a necessary feature of a choice system. We can embrace choice while maintaining our commitment to equal opportunity and integration, secularism, and social justice.
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