School choice relieves the pressures of polarization and partisan rancor. This sounds counter-intuitive. In Arizona and now in Iowa, Republican-dominated legislatures have established education savings accounts for families. The effect is to make more than $7,000 available per child for parents to use toward tuition at private schools, should they choose to do so. These measures were fiercely opposed by Democrats and denounced as grievous blows to our tradition of public education.
Yes, school choice is itself a divisive issue. But we need to take a larger view. We are an increasingly divided country. From the nation’s capital to our main streets, a once solid and capacious social and political consensus has eroded, and in some instances collapsed. A wise leader must face this fact, and he needs to seek policies that moderate our potentially explosive social and political differences.
Federalism is often touted as a way to de-escalate political conflict. With less at stake in Washington, more common ground can be found. And when controversial issues such as abortion are debated at the state level, the possibilities of compromise are greater.
The same holds for divisive issues such as transgenderism. Let Connecticut require girls’ sports teams to accept biological males who identify as female—and let Florida prohibit the same thing. Diverse approaches may not satisfy the Human Rights Campaign and its ambition to bring the entire country under the governance of the Rainbow Reich, but preventing a nationwide donnybrook is surely better for our country.
School choice is federalism at the local level. It transfers decision-making away from school boards to parents. This devolution is necessary to get out of the cycle of ever-escalating conflict over public school curricula and school policies.
Most public school administrators are products of notoriously leftwing schools of education. They are congenitally sympathetic to progressive ideas about everything from how to teach math to what to tell girls who identify as boys. Allocating funds to allow parents to send their children elsewhere means that those who dissent from the progressive agenda need not shout in anger at school board meetings. They can take their kids to different schools.
There’s another social benefit to school choice: incentives for citizens to team up to establish new schools. As Tocqueville observed, Americans have a genius for collective action. Unlike his fellow Frenchmen, who waited for officials to solve problems, the farmers, craftsmen, and business owners he observed formed committees and established local institutions to serve local needs.
The Arizona and Iowa bills allocate significant sums of money to school choice. (The amounts will depend upon how many opt out of public schools.) As a consequence, the financial barrier to forming new schools will be greatly diminished. We’re likely to see an upsurge of citizen-led initiatives in Arizona and Iowa. New institutions will be conceived and built by those who live and work locally—rather than planned and imposed by bureaucrats who dictate remotely.
Renewed local action is very much needed in twenty-first-century America. We have become too dependent, a condition that often leads to angry resentment. This fuels the disruptive populism that propelled Donald Trump into office and continues to affect Republican primaries. One antidote is local accountability. Robust school choice means that a poorly performing and unresponsive educational environment for your kids is your fault. You can’t blame the “system” or the “swamp.”
The mission of our public schools was established in the nineteenth century. The goal was to do more than teach reading, writing, and arithmetic. Schools were also charged with responsibility for socializing the children of immigrants into our common culture.
After World War II, Harvard President James B. Conant underlined this function in his influential 1959 book, The American High School Today. He argued that our democratic ethos is reinforced when a community's young people, many from different social classes and backgrounds, attend the same school.
Conant’s approach made sense in its time, and I benefited from my experiences as a student at a big public high school. But we are not living in 1959, a time when the social consensus in America was deep and wide. That consensus had frayed somewhat by 1978, the year I graduated from high school. But there was no 1619 Project; nobody was yet talking about Dead White Males; and however pervasive the hedonism, the LGBT steamroller was not yet grinding down all opposition.
I’m not sure what James B. Conant would say in 2023. He was not an idealist indifferent to practical limits. Perhaps he would support school choice, acknowledging that public education has become a site of bitter contestation rather than common, unifying experiences. We can rue this reality all day long, but that doesn’t make it less of a fact. A discerning person is likely to conclude that it’s better to allow rival factions to form warm educational communities that accord with their convictions than to tear apart a common system that we seem unable to share.
We have a great deal in common as Americans. But what we share can be obscured by the rage and fury of our partisan battles. It is for this reason that school choice will paradoxically promote unity in our country. By allowing parents to go their own ways when it comes to the education of their children, we can lower the temperature of our differences. Then we can get on with the business of building a common future.
R. R. Reno is editor of First Things.
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