Greg Forster, Ph.D. | April 1, 2016

Churches for choice

Greg Forster, Ph.D.

One of the oldest puzzles in the school choice movement is why religious communities and leaders aren’t more interested in school choice. The government school monopoly promotes a stereotype that school choice is promoted by religious fanatics, but in fact religious leaders have been underrepresented in the school choice coalition. The most likely reason is a fear of compromising the independence of religious schools—but experience doesn’t support those fears, and I hope the time has come to get past them.

Recently, the American Center for Transforming Education announced a school-choice partnership with OCPA. The partnership will include building “a faith-based coalition” for choice in Oklahoma. I hope they’re successful; the national movement could use a model to build on nationwide.

I don’t want to overstate the case. It’s not like religious leaders are totally absent. In some cities, Roman Catholic leaders in particular have been important supporters, as have some Jewish leaders. Oklahoma City Archbishop Paul Coakley and Tulsa Bishop Edward Slattery have just issued a public call to expand school choice in Oklahoma. Support from religious leaders was especially crucial in the early days of the movement, when school choice had not yet attracted the attention of many of the secular progressives who lead the movement today.

In general, though, the school choice movement has been led by a fractious coalition of secularists. For a long time it has been dominated by mostly-secular progressives, who provide the bulk of the money and staffing. The movement is also spiced up by a small and feisty population of mostly-secular free marketers.

The parents who use school choice programs, who show up to rallies at state capitals and courthouses, do reflect the general American population in being mostly religious. But they are not the movement. Their main interest, God bless them, is in protecting their children from having their educational opportunity taken away—which is not the same as being part of a movement to expand it to others. We know this about them because they don’t start showing up to rallies until after the choice programs are created.

Both of the major groups in the movement also have largely secular motives and justifications for supporting school choice. The progressives are interested in justice and equality, while the free marketers are interested in freedom and in eliminating bureaucratic waste. Interestingly, Milton Friedman’s original 1955 article proposing the first modern school voucher idea made the case entirely on grounds of “efficiency.” He showed, correctly, that choice would deliver better results for less cost. Concerns about freedom, pluralism, and rescuing children whose lives were being destroyed by the monopoly would emerge later.

The big missing link here, the dog that isn’t barking, is evangelicals. The general scope of their political beliefs—from religious freedom to concern for the poor—points to school choice. And they would benefit from school choice programs. Yet they’ve been mostly absent from the fight.

This ought to be a time of increased concern about religious education. The culture is more and more fragmented; it’s more difficult than ever for people to form and maintain stable identities or bond with communities. That’s why affiliation with mainline and liberal Catholic churches is declining. People whose parents were easygoing Episcopalians or cafeteria Catholics now tell polltakers their religious affiliation is “None.” While the data do not suggest declines in evangelical affiliation, all parents should make sure their children are launching into this chaotic world from a steady starting point. You can’t decide for them what they will believe when they’re old enough to examine things for themselves, but you can raise them with a stable identity and a faith community of love, holiness, and support.

Religious education at home and in church is not always enough. It can be. My wife and I send our daughter to public school, and that’s working out well. But we have advantages not everyone has.

Most importantly, we live in a smaller, Midwestern community with a solid public culture. Our daughter may not study the Bible in school, but she’s not seeing one set of values in her teachers and another set of values at home. Discordance between authority figures (parents and teachers) hinders moral formation in children. They tend not to internalize moral commitments in a deep way unless they see those same commitments consistently in multiple types of authorities.

If children are to be raised with any kind of solid virtues—including the virtues of respecting religious differences!—it’s essential for families to be able to choose a school that shares their moral worldview. Where the moral universe at home and in the local public school don’t align tolerably well, as they do for us, having a choice is not just a way of respecting parental authority. It’s critical to the well-being of the child.

As I said, the most likely reason evangelicals—and, to a lesser extent, leaders in other religions—haven’t been more active supporters of school choice is a fear of losing the independence of their schools. They think if tuition at a religious school is paid by a school choice program, government will gain some level of control over the school’s curriculum. The government school monopoly and its supporters have been eager to stoke these fears.

The evangelical tradition of skepticism toward involvement with the state is generally a healthy one, but these particular fears are unfounded. Parents, not government, have the power in school choice programs. Schools are not getting entangled with the state, but with parents.

We have 59 private school choice programs serving about 393,000 students in 28 states. The first modern school choice program was enacted in Milwaukee in 1990, so school choice has had 26 years to reveal any nefarious tendencies toward state encroachment. So far, there is no sign of significant encroachment on the curricula of private schools—at least, no more encroachment than the schools were already dealing with before the choice programs were created, since many states exercise inappropriate control over private schools’ curricula whether they participate in school choice or not!

The reason for this track record is worth noting. On those rare occasions when the cronies of the school monopoly have attempted to modify choice programs in order to invade the curricula of private schools, the parents sending their children to those schools rally in protest. The measures get stopped.

In other words, school choice actually creates a strong public constituency for protecting the autonomy of private schools! And the larger the school choice program is, the stronger that constituency is. Counter-intuitive as it may seem, school choice may actually be the most promising strategy we have for fighting off the threat of government control of religious institutions—a threat that is currently growing for reasons that have nothing to do with school choice.

Evangelicals have a long history of social activism—dating all the way back to the national controversy over mail delivery on Sunday in 1811, and their widespread opposition to Andrew Jackson’s genocidal “Indian Removal” in 1830. From the abolition of slavery to the Populist movement (“You shall not press down upon the brow of labor this crown of thorns; you shall not crucify mankind upon a cross of gold!”) to almost all the controversies of the 20th century, evangelicals have fought for justice as they saw it. Sometimes they were on the right side (slavery) and sometimes the wrong (Populism), but they rarely sat on the sidelines. They felt responsible for the well-being of their communities.

There have been two glaring exceptions. White evangelicals mostly missed the boat on the civil rights movement; fifty years later, they regretted it. Today they’re missing the boat on a movement that many of us think will be looked back on fifty or a hundred years from now the same way people now look back on the civil rights movement. It would be a shame to miss the boat again. Today is the day of salvation; the night is coming when no man can work.

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.

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