School choice is inherently good. I don’t mean to say school choice is good because it will lead to specific outcomes, such as higher test scores or higher graduation rates, although I think it will. Rather, I mean that school choice—the ability to choose your child’s school—is itself a good thing.
Education is more than teaching the three Rs; it is inherently value-laden. Education gets at our deep-seated values. Schools touch on these explicitly in what they choose to teach or not to teach. They also touch on these values in the little things they do. When we insist students call teachers Mr. or Mrs., for instance, we teach them to respect authority. When we recite the pledge of allegiance, we are inculcating reverence for our country. In almost every action, whether little or big, our schools are imparting values to our children.
This connection between schools and values is a problem in our public education system, which typically assigns students to schools. It means that if I want my values taught in the school, I must impose them on everyone else. As Vance Randall, an education professor at Brigham Young University, has written, “A major cost inherent in the establishment of state-sponsored schools in America was an educational program with conflict built into the system.”
But not every country has designed their system like ours. In Australia, Ireland, Belgium, and most other industrialized nations, the government provides some funding to non-governmental (private) schools. They allow for broader choice.
In the United States our system developed differently. Beginning in the mid to late 1800s, there was a push for the Common School. The leading lights of those days, however, such as Horace Mann, looked at the waves of immigrants coming into the country, the isolated rural villages teaching students in Polish or German, and thought that this decentralized system was chaos. They devised plans for a new system – a Common School System. As historian David Tyack put it in his 1975 book, “They tried to design, in short, the one best system.”
For over a hundred years now, America has been trying to build and refine this one best system. But it won’t work—because there is no single, best system. We disagree on which values we want imparted to our children. We also disagree on which instructional practices we want in our schools; I want direct instruction, you want discovery learning. We cannot both have our way in the traditional system. Either I win and you lose, or vice versa.
That is why school choice is good in and of itself. It recognizes that in our pluralistic society, we do not need to force one set of values and instruction on children. Instead, we can allow people—even people we disagree with—to voluntarily associate with one another and to choose the type of school that fits their child and their values.
We should not have to check our values at the schoolhouse door as a condition for receiving a public education. If we cherish freedom of thought, of expression, and of association—if we care about diversity—it hardly seems possible that we can cultivate those values by denying families the opportunity to pursue diverse educational opportunities that shape the thoughts and develop the minds of their children.