The controversial nomination and narrow, contested selection of Betsy DeVos has brought the topic of school choice back to the news circuit. There is a lot of speculation about exactly what this appointment, and the new administration in Washington, means to American education. There are a lot of strong opinions, but it is my perspective that opinion should be based on fact, and when it comes to discussions of school choice, fact seems to be elusive.
School choice, including public funds to assist with tuition and fee payments at private institutions owned by religious groups, has been around for a long time. Federal and state governments have developed budgets and provided financial assistance to students in the form of vouchers based almost solely on financial need. Few restrictions were placed on the kinds of schools where these vouchers could be used, other than maintaining some kind of recognized accreditation or system of granting credit. Initially, they were called Basic Educational Opportunity Grants, but I believe they are now known as Pell Grants. The basic qualifications to receive them are based on the student, not necessarily on the school they attend. Students can use Pell Grants to attend a college or university with a distinctively Christian mission and purpose, major in religious studies, or take Bible classes.
The idea, and the legal defense, for voucher programs involving students in elementary, middle and high schools came from the government grant program, and several other similar programs which are based on financial need and provide assistance to students to attend school. One of the more notably successful voucher programs is one funded entirely by the federal government, known as the Opportunity Scholarship program for students residing within the District of Columbia. The poor condition of the public schools within the city of Washington prompted the development of a program to help kids from families who didn’t have the means to get them into a school that would teach them, and where they could learn. Many of the vouchers provided to students are used by their families to pay tuition and fees at some of the city’s elite, private, church-related schools like Sidwell Friends, National Cathedral Academy, and St. Alban’s, along with Catholic schools, and several Evangelical Christian schools, or to attend private, Christian schools in the Maryland or Virginia suburbs.
Some of you reading this blog post had at least part of your education at a church-related college or university paid for by a government grant, or some kind of tax funded scholarship program. Many Christian colleges and universities provide complete undergraduate theological training identical to coursework offered at seminaries, precisely because students can use need-based government assistance to take courses there, whereas they can’t get that kind of financial aid at a seminary.
The public schools in this country, collectively, have not earned a high level of confidence from parents of students who must attend them. There are places where public schools perform at, or above, expected levels, but there’s not a lot of consistency in achievement levels. Some states have very few public schools that perform at expected levels. But school choice isn’t just about academic achievement. Many of the students who receive Pell Grants choose a college because its philosophy of education and the principles which drive its mission and purpose are consistent with their Christian faith, and the values that being Christian cultivate in their life. The school’s instructional objectives help to undergird and strengthen their faith. That’s the same reason most parents choose a Christian school for their children. And in this country, they should be free to make that choice, without having it restricted by their ability to pay for it. After all, they’ve paid taxes, some of which have been committed to the education of children by the government. They should be able to access some of what they’ve paid to provide the kind of education for their children that will support and undergird the values they possess because of their faith in Christ.
Most Christian schools, the vast majority of them in fact, operate with academic standards that far exceed those of the public school system. But the bottom line is that most parents choose them as providers of their children’s education based specifically on the integration of Biblical values into the curriculum, and the Christian atmosphere of the school, and not specifically because of superior academics. And most Christian schools would prefer to be selective about who they admit, based on their Christian identity rather than academic quality, in order to maintain a distinctively Christian atmosphere. Since the government has assumed the responsibility for providing resources for the education of students, parents who choose a Christian school should also be allowed to direct the tax money that is spent on their child’s education to the school they’ve selected for their kids. That’s the bottom line for school choice. Parents who want their children to have a better education than their local public school provides should be able to use the tax money designated to provide their education at a place where they can get what they feel their children need.
The Catholic church in this country established a system of schools because they felt that the public school system was far to influenced by Protestants, and that the schools were, in effect, Protestant Christian schools. The battles that Baptists fought to keep them from getting public funds were based on the fact that they were very influential, and had solid control over the content taught in public school classrooms. Through local school boards, most public schools were controlled by Protestants, and were highly favorable to creating an atmosphere where Catholic kids could be evangelized. So they strenuously objected to any kind of public funding for Catholic schools. But they haven’t objected to accepting government grants that boosted enrollment and revenue at the colleges and universities they owned. The principles being advanced by school choice advocates are based on those same arguments