Education, often provided via schooling, through educational institutions, is important for the thriving of persons and their families, for good citizenship and a fair democracy, and for the functioning and growth of the economy. It is a matter not only of facts and logic but also of values and philosophies, virtues and commitments. As such, in a country of such religious, philosophical, and moral diversity as the United States, education policy—our governments’ laws, regulations, programs, and distribution of financial support—ought to be pluralistic, not monolithic.
Education and School Choice
K-12 & Higher Education
Higher education. The American higher education system is largely pluralistic, comprised of a variety of public colleges, universities, and community colleges, and also many kinds of private—secular and religious—colleges and universities. Accrediting agencies are also pluralistic, in principle, pressing for accountability and excellence in terms appropriate to the respective sorts of education and institutions they each oversee. And government policy is pluralistic—supporting those different accrediting agencies, allowing students eligible for federal or state financial aid to choose, within some limits, whichever educational institution they respectively regard as most appropriate for themselves, whether public or private, religious or secular.
K-12 education. In significant contrast, American kindergarten through high school education is in the main provided via public schools, government-financed and government-operated, required to be secular and value-neutral. Charter schools, which are government-financed but not under tight government control, offer variety within a secular framework. There are also private schools, secular and religious, which typically receive little government financial support. And more and more parents are choosing to home-school, sometimes with government assistance and sometimes with government opposition.
American governments, federal, state, and local, have been adopting varieties of school choice policies, providing more freedom for non-public education and greater government support for the non-public education options. Such greater k-12 pluralism is an important advance. Because families are diverse in beliefs and values, they ought to be able to select among a variety of educational options for their children. And government financial support for k-12 education ought to follow those diverse familial choices.
To be sure, schools need to be accountable—accountable to society through government but also accountable to parents, to families. Those families are diverse and so the school sector needs to be diverse, offering a range of options. Government should facilitate the families’ diverse choices by funding the various schools the families select.
In our current K-12 system, it is only families with significant wealth that enjoy full school choice: they can move to a different public school district or pay for the private school that seems best to them. Families without that much wealth ought to enjoy the same full school choice. The amount of education funding the government has decided to allot to each family should be distributed not automatically to the closest public school but to whichever school each of the families has decided is most appropriate.
Education professor and consultant Charles Glenn, who has been inspired by the school choice vision of the Center for Public Justice, has conducted extensive empirical and theoretical work looking at schooling around the world. His work shows that school choice policies can be designed that balance freedom, autonomy, and accountability in education, respecting family values, teachers’ professional freedom, and the stewardship of government funding.
McCarthy, et al., Society, State, & Schools
McCarthy, et al., Disestablishment a Second Time: Genuine Pluralism for American Schools
Charles Glenn, Contrasting Models of State and Schools: A Comparative Historical Study of Parental Choice and State Control
Charles Glenn and Jan de Groof, Balancing Freedom, Autonomy and Accountability in Education, 4 volumes; content digitized and updated at the JHU education choice website.