Greg Forster, Ph.D. | April 13, 2021
School choice as prophetic justice
Greg Forster, Ph.D.
Some pastors in Oklahoma are insisting that Christian faithfulness requires us to oppose school choice policies. As the state considers expanding school choice, it’s worth exploring why some people come to think this way. Theology can’t actually settle granular policy questions—the Bible doesn’t tell you what the tax rate should be—but a moral understanding of the social landscape, in light of what we believe is ultimately true and good, is a necessary part of anyone’s thinking about public policy.
Religion and school choice is always a dicey subject. Because choice allows parents to exercise their natural right to choose a school even if that school is religious, some people see the subject almost entirely through the lens of that fact. This includes religious people who support choice because it has the effect of allowing more students to attend religious schools, as well as anti-religious people who oppose it for the same reason.
In reality, taking the handcuffs off parents is not pro-religious or anti-religious. Shackling families to a government school monopoly could arguably have been called pro-religious in the old days, when the monopoly used to indoctrinate children in the modernizing theological notions of mainline Protestantism. And it could arguably be seen as anti-religious today; it certainly has the effect of promoting secularization. But allowing parents at long last to exercise their right to choose is neither; it is merely doing justice.
Some don’t see it that way, though. A group called Pastors for Oklahoma Kids thinks justice actually demands we take parents’ rights away. On their Twitter feed you will find all the usual myths and calumnies about school choice—that making a choice to go to a private school “drains money” from government schools, that because choice schools are accountable to parents they are “unaccountable,” that pluralism in education is dangerous to “democracy,” etc.—but dressed up with religious rhetoric about justice.
Some Oklahoma pastors identify Christian faithfulness with defending a school monopoly that destroys children’s lives in order to line the pockets of special interests.
“Varied denominations agree time and again. Christians have a moral duty to support our local public schools,” reads one tweet, posted in the midst of a stream of anti-choice tweets that leaves no doubt about the intended message. A political cartoon repeatedly promoted in the feed depicts Moses coming down from Mt. Sinai with two tablets etched with the words “Public Education.” Nearby, Israelites dressed in business suits worship a golden calf labeled “Vouchers.”
How do they justify identifying Christian faithfulness with defending a school monopoly that destroys children’s lives in order to line the pockets of special interests? Some of it is mere misdirection. For example, they misleadingly depict a survey to create the impression that 95% of Protestant pastors are against school choice. It actually found 95% of Protestant pastors think Christians should “be involved in public education.”
But there is a more theologically substantial factor in their ethical inversion. The group’s feed consistently identifies school choice as something that serves the wealthy, and the government school monopoly as serving the poor. Hence opposition to school choice becomes prophetic witness against the powerful on behalf of the marginalized.
Christians and churches are right to speak in the public square about justice, with special attention to protecting the weak from the powerful. For one thing, our communities need it. The political community is constituted by our discourse about justice. And since all purely secular theories of justice are ultimately circular and groundless, even in a pluralistic society with religious freedom we need to have public religious discourse and debate about justice even to be who we are as a people.
But this role is also essential to the people of God’s identity and faithfulness. The three primary offices of Christ are prophet, priest, and king. Just as Jesus’ kingship summons all Christians to good stewardship of all that has been entrusted to their care, and Jesus’ priesthood summons all Christians to serve as ministers of reconciliation to the world, Jesus’ prophetic office summons all Christians to speak out against injustice, identifying ourselves with the oppressed and marginalized.
The question we must ask is: Who are really the powerful in our educational system, and who are the oppressed?
The government monopoly is backed by literally the most powerful human institution ever created—the government of the United States. That institution is endlessly subservient to special-interest lobbyists, and as a result, its pet school system runs purely on power. Its lavishly paid administrative bosses prioritize not a good education for students, but delivering the goods to educational interests. This has become much more obvious to everyone during the pandemic, as the special interests have become increasingly isolated from the rest of society in terms of what they demand from education policy. But there has been no substantial change in the essential injustice of the system; we just see it more clearly now.
How do some churches go so terribly wrong that they identify the oppressors as the oppressed, and thus defend in God’s name a system of power that oppresses the poor?
And what about students and teachers? Because the government monopoly system runs purely on political power, students and teachers tend to fare well when they themselves are from advantaged groups, and poorly if they are from marginalized populations. Comfortable, pale-faced suburban parents can usually get at least some responsiveness from their local government schools, because those parents wield the only two weapons the system respects: political influence, and the ability (fueled by money) to exercise choice and leave the system. School choice extends that kind of power to other parents, who otherwise lack it, and who typically find their local government schools are little better than warehouses where their children are treated as cattle. Teachers, meanwhile, are poorly served both by the system itself and by the well-paid union bosses who are supposed to represent their interests, but don’t.
How do some churches go so terribly wrong that they identify the oppressors as the oppressed, and thus defend in God’s name a system of power that oppresses the poor? Mainly it happens when secular ideas about what constitutes “justice” wholly displace a genuinely biblical and theological understanding. When this happens on the political left, as with Pastors for Oklahoma Kids, churches demand unlimited expansion of a progressive state, because the secular left identifies justice with the expansion of a progressive state. When this happens on the political right, churches demand unlimited expansion of a nationalist state, because the secular right identifies justice with the expansion of a nationalist state.
Biblically, justice centers on treating people with the dignity and respect due to them as creatures made in the image of God, both individually and in natural, authentic community relationships such as the family and the neighborhood. And although “love” is a much larger category than “justice,” given its role in the triune nature of God himself, nonetheless justice cannot rightly be done apart from a universal goodwill that orients our hearts toward what is good for others. Over the last thousand years, and especially in the last five hundred years, most Christians (not all) have increasingly found that the idea of human rights expresses most concisely both the requirements of respecting human dignity and the universal summons to do this impartially for all people.
If parents don’t have a human right to control the education of their children, the idea of rights is nonsense. The whole Christian ethical tradition makes no sense if parents are not the first and final authority over education. Even the United Nations recognizes parental control of education as a fundamental, prepolitical right in its Universal Declaration of Human Rights; shame on the church if it actually falls behind the world in recognizing and respecting human rights.
A government monopoly that uses the power of the state to force parents to submit their children to an education they don’t think is best for them, unless they’re rich enough to pay to escape the system’s grip, is the second-greatest offense to justice I can image short of actually killing or enslaving people. The greatest would be to inflict this injustice on families, and then turn around and run the government school system for the private profit of greedy, politically connected special interests. If there’s a single stone the government monopoly has left unturned in its quest to serve the rich at the expense of the poor, I’d be surprised. If we identify ourselves with the poor and seek to protect them from oppression by the powerful, we should leave no stone unturned in our quest to break the monopoly.
Greg Forster, Ph.D.
Greg Forster (Ph.D., Yale University) is a Friedman Fellow with EdChoice. He has conducted numerous empirical studies on education issues, including school choice, accountability testing, graduation rates, student demographics, and special education. The author of nine books and the co-editor of six books, Dr. Forster has also written numerous articles in peer-reviewed academic journals, as well as in popular publications such as The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, and the Chronicle of Higher Education.