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Boisi Center for Religion and American Public Life

School Choice and Pluralism

School Choice and Pluralism
Conference Abstracts
Friday, March 9th


Amy Gutmann, Princeton University
"Assessing Arguments for School Choice: Pluralism, Parental Rights, or Educational Results?"

When school choice is defended in the American context, it generally refers to a voucher plan by which parents would be given an school voucher, worth a certain amount of money, to be used at a school of the parents' choice, either publicly or privately run, religious or secular. The private schools are to be minimally regulated so that they do not become public schools in disguise. Most vouchers advocates therefore put their trust in market forces and distrust public standards and values. They acknowledge that schools, as publicly funded and accredited institutions, should serve public purposes. But they think that these purposes are minimal. What are the strongest arguments in favor of vouchers or school choice? Three very different kinds of arguments tend to be offered, from pluralism, parental rights, and educational results. Two questions need to be raised about the argument from pluralism. First, does it uniquely support a voucher system? Second, should pluralism be a primary goal of a system of primary and secondary schooling? The question that needs to be raised about parental rights is whether the primary right at stake in publicly funded schools is not the parents' but rather the child's. The most important factor to be considered of the three arguments in favor of vouchers is that it promises better educational results than the alternatives. The results of voucher experiments, however, do not recommend them as anything close to the "panacea" that their most ardent advocates claim on their behalf. We therefore need to consider a far more moderate case that can be made for school choice as a second-best response to the severe problems confronting inner-city schools. Parents do not have a basic right to choose whatever school they wish for their children at public expense. Publicly funded schooling at the elementary and secondary school level is fundamentally about the rights of children, not parents, to be educated as free and equal citizens. And it should therefore always be remembered that pluralism itself is not a primary aim of education. School choice is at best a means, and at worst a distraction from the most serious educational problems that beset publicly funded schools.

Meira Levinson, Boston Public Schools, and Sanford Levinson, University of Texas School of Law
"Getting Religion: Religion, Diversity, and Commonality in Public and Private Schools"

There are many arguments for and against school vouchers. Two of the most common and potentially most potent arguments against vouchers center on diversity and the "cream-off" effect. According to the first argument, school vouchers will result in some students going to private schools that by design are segregated along one or more axes (religion, other belief system, intelligence, achievement, behavior, and/or socio-economic status), whereas otherwise these students would stay in more diverse public schools. This removal of students from a putatively greater to less-diverse setting matters because students should be educated in a diverse setting (1) in order to develop toleration of others as part of the liberal democratic civic project, and/or (2) in order to develop their own autonomy by interacting with people who hold beliefs and lead lives that are different from their own. This, in very sketchy form, is the "diversity argument." Furthermore, the "'cream-off effect' argument" goes, by enabling smart/committed/active/religious/ white/whatever parents to take their involvement and their children to private schools, vouchers leave public schools and the students stuck in them worse off than before, because the "best" parents and students have fled elsewhere. This latter argument is usually made from an egalitarian perspective, as will be discussed in another panel of this conference, where the focus is the harm done to public schools by losing involved parents. But the "cream-off effect" argument also can derive strength from the diversity argument, insofar as the disappearance of religious, white, lower-middle class, or other group of students from the public schools leaves the public schools less diverse along that axis, and therefore (drawing on the diversity argument) harms the civic education and/or autonomy development of public school students left behind.

These arguments have been made many times before. Our aim is not to rehash the pros and cons of these arguments in the course of justifying or discrediting them. Instead, we are interested in examining the normative consequences of applying them to a question that seems to have been incongruously overlooked in the current voucher debate: namely, does the liberal-democratic state and/or do children have a compelling interest in children's going to school in a diverse religious setting? Positive (and negative) answers abound to the racial version of this question; the importance of "mingling together" is the foundation of most defenses of so-called "diversity" admissions policies by universities, and it (along with important egalitarian considerations) also undergirds the attempt by many public school systems to preserve "racial balancing" policies against the recent anti-busing and anti-desegregation backlash. Interestingly, however, the religious version of this question has gone virtually unconsidered, at least until this conference, except to the extent that it applies to the autonomy-development and civic membership interests specifically of children of religious parents who want to remove them from public school.

For example, Yoder is discussed in terms of whether Amish children unacceptably lose out by being removed from school after eighth grade, and Mozert v. Hawkins is similarly disputed on the grounds of whether children of fundamentalists have a right to be exposed to different viewpoints and be taught critical thinking skills. With the "Yale Five," too, far more consideration was given to whether it would benefit the Orthodox Jewish students to live in a dormitory than whether it benefitted other Yale freshmen to live with Orthodox Jews. Even when compromises are suggested, therefore, they take the form of "those children are better off and will be exposed to more if they stay in the public schools, even if they have to miss out on the reading program (e.g. in the Mozert case), than if their parents withdraw them entirely." Consideration is rarely given to how the civic or personal development of non-fundamentalist children left behind in the public schools will be affected by the withdrawal of the fundamentalist children. Similarly, despite the vast amount of literature arguing in favor of diverse public schools, we know of no serious consideration that has ever been given to whether public schools might alter school catchment areas to achieve "religious balancing," or less drastically and therefore potentially more intriguingly, offer incentives (e.g. a kosher or halal cafeteria, or an adjusted school schedule) to attract religious minority families to a school located in an otherwise all-Christian area of town. It is these issues that interest us in this paper.

A second focus of the paper is how religious diversity interests balance against other types of diversity. For example, even if the answer to the question posed above is yes, that it is a compelling interest of either the state and/or children for children to be educated in religiously-diverse settings, it is possible that a school that is not religiously diverse (e.g. a private Baptist academy or other church school) will be more racially or socio-economically diverse than other private or public schools. Catholic schools, for example, are notable for drawing families across many racial and socio-economic lines. It is probable, as well, that especially with the aid of vouchers, some Pentacostal or other church schools would likely draw students from a much wider socio-economic range than a typical prep school - even one that courted diversity - or a neighborhood public school would. After all, the continued (renewed?) segregation of students in public schools - whether it be all lower-income blacks in urban Atlanta or Detroit, or mostly middle- and upper-income whites in Scarsdale - has been well documented. Furthermore, certain non-religious but otherwise "sectarian" private schools (e.g. miliary academies, Waldorf schools, "free" schools, mountain/wilderness academies, etc.) are for a variety of reasons far less diverse along most axes than many religious schools. Even self-consciously "progressive" schools, both public and private, have a hard time attracting families that are non-white or Asian and non-middle-class; even when access to them is easy and free, black, Hispanic, and lower-income parents all typically favor traditional, "3 R's" schools. To the extent that voucher programs must satisfy diversity claims, therefore, it could be that vouchers should arguably be provided for some religious schools but not for these other private schools. This, obviously, would be a highly unexpected twist for the application of diversity considerations to religious schools, since usually proponents of diversity (for either civic toleration-building or autonomy-building reasons) come down squarely against the use of vouchers for religious schools precisely on the grounds that they inappropriately segregate students. Thus, this is another important set of considerations that we will address in our paper.

Nancy Rosenblum, Harvard University
"Separating the Siamese Twins, 'Pluralism' and 'School Choice'"

Advocates of school choice propose what has been called a "new Pierce compromise". Pierce v. Society of Sisters paired responsibility for inculcating "the fundamental values necessary to the maintenance of a democratic political system" with freedom to exit public schools for reasons related to "the private beliefs of the student and his or her family". It ruled criminal penalties for private schooling unconstitutional while upholding compulsory school attendance and "reasonable" government regulation of all schools, including content standards. School choice advocates would refashion the compromise by providing public support to parents who elect private education or alternative school options offered by public school systems.

Discussions of every aspect of this subject invariably assume that pluralism and school choice go together. Arguments rely on their inseparability, their implied identity. The promise of vouchers and tax-credits, charter schools, and non-zoned schools within the public system is parental choice, and the assumption is opportunities for choice among schools that differ across dimensions that matter. Advocates are not always explicit about what pluralist dimensions we can expect to find in education - supporters are encouraged to fill in their own aspirations. In every case, though, "pluralism" means more than diversity. Differences in curriculum and pedagogy per se are insufficient. Pluralism refers to schools designed in accord with some community's particular values and goals, most often schools organized around culture, language, or religion.

In these discussions the twins are symbiotic; each reinforces the positive connotations of the other. Choice is supposed to increase pluralism, and pluralism is supposed to be generally accessible, with opportunities for choice. My thesis is that pluralism and school choice have no inherent connection and that attempts to link them reflect a degree of careless presumption or bad faith. Looked at carefully, arguments for choice are not pluralist, and pluralist arguments do not assign special value to choice. Moreover, under present conditions in the U.S., the implication that school choice means choice among imagined pluralist alternatives in practice is misleading, is wrong as a likely consequence of policy changes, and vulnerable even as an aspiration. My purpose is to be alert and skeptical of their assumed connection as a matter of theoretical argument, advocacy, and practice. 

Discussant:  David Hollenbach, S.J., Boston College