School Choice’s Moment Is Now — It’s Time To Seize It

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School choice, the code word behind the battle to break the monopoly of the public schools, has begun in earnest. Long in the political shadows, the recent election and confirmation as Secretary of Education of a pro-school choice advocate, Betsy DeVos, has moved it into the light.

Religious Americans, in particular, have been and are still the victims of the prejudice behind our country’s public educational system. They have been bamboozled by the phrase “separation of church and state,” and the erroneous belief that it means our tax monies cannot and should not be used to support an education that includes instruction in one’s religion.  First, the phrase “separation of church and state” is nowhere found in our United States Constitution.

Second, the Nevada Supreme Court recently ruled that the federal constitution affirms the right to use tax monies, both state and federal, for a child’s education in a non-public school. The answer is simple:  Give the tax monies to the child, not the school, as other advanced nations do.

Most European and Commonwealth countries have policies whereby government funds follow children into their schools of choice:  public, private secular, or private religious. The four best known “school choice” countries are the Netherlands (nearly 70 percent of students are in religious schools at government expense), Belgium (nearly half), Chile (nearly a third), and Sweden (nearly a quarter). Canada, Australia, France, Denmark, and several other advanced countries also provide government funding of religious private schools based on parental choice. We in the United States are the odd ones out of step.

Critics of the movement for school choice counter that American parents have religious freedom and therefore are free to send their children to the sectarian schools of their choice. And, at one time, Catholics, Lutherans, and others had large and robust school systems.  But that was then and this is now.

For example, by the mid-1960s, enrollment in Catholic parochial schools had reached an all-time high of 4.5 million elementary school pupils, with about 1 million students in Catholic high schools. Today, the total Catholic school student enrollment for the current academic year is less than two million. In 50 years, the country’s Catholic population has more than doubled, and the percentage of children in Catholics schools has been reduced to one-sixth of what it was.

There are many reasons for the shrinkage of Catholic schools, but the primary reason is dollars. The amount of tax money going to public education has risen dramatically in recent years, so now our public schools are spending on average more than $12,000 per student per year. The Boston Public Schools’ annual per-pupil cost are well north of that figure! Bill McGurn of the Wall Street Journal recently reported that New York City is spending $23,516 per pupil this school year. Meanwhile, private and religious education are, de facto, only for the rich.

But what is so wrong with sending all our children to public schools? Many in our rich suburbs have good schools and most of our cities have a few good schools, too. But, in general, the public schools in our country are failing miserably.  

According to the recently released rankings of the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development, which annually measures the academic achievement of students across 35 major nations, the U.S. schools are not keeping up with our trading partners. Two years ago, our schools ranked 26th out of 35 in math. In this year’s report, our public schools have slipped to a lowly 31st.

But test scores in reading, mathematics, and science, as important as they are, are hardly the sole criteria of a solid education. What about the formation of good character? Two months ago, Paul Peterson and his team of Harvard researchers reported on their national survey of public and non-public school parents. One of the topics is the schools’ teaching “character and values.” Only 21 percent of public school parents are “highly satisfied” with their school’s performance in that area, compared with 59 percent of non-public school parents. 

Although most parents want high-achieving schools, the primary reason religious parents want to send their children to religious schools is the transmission of their faith. On the other hand, the official “faith” of our public schools is materialistic secularism. By case law, they are areligious. They are “religion-free zones,” where the only allowed truth claims are scientifically verifiable ones and where an attitude of cynicism and skepticism toward religion is widespread. Currently, the public-school monopoly educates 90 percent of American youth. It can be no surprise, then, that more and more young people are rejecting the faith of their fathers and mothers.

This current situation is dire, unjust, and clearly discriminatory. But there is a solution, even one which can bypass the phony “separation of church and state” objections. Give the tax monies to the child, not the school, as other advanced nations do.

With so many minority children trapped in failing and disordered public schools, school choice has become an issue of social justice. One political party is financially beholden to the nation’s teachers’ unions. Out of sheer self-interest, these unions are committed to the status quo.

Today, political power is shifting. The White House and majorities in both chambers of Congress are in favor of some form of school choice. Religious Americans are the majority and we need to seize the moment. We need to insist that religious Americans have the financial support to send their children to schools of their choice.


Kevin Ryan is a Boston University emeritus professor and Marilyn Ryan is a political scientist and writer.  The Ryans live in Brookline. Read their past columns here.