Psychologist Jonathan Haidt, well-known for his theory of moral foundations, argues that one of the most effective ways to sway an ideological counterpart to your side is to speak their moral language. He asserts that liberals and conservatives respond more favorably to arguments that appeal to specific virtues: The latter are more sympathetic to loyalty-based arguments while the former prefer fairness-based arguments. It’s a useful way to understand our fellow man, but in the debate over school choice, the stubborn appeal to fairness can hold back the cause of badly needed reform.
Various coalitions supporting school choice have been effective at co-opting the language of the Left to make the case that vouchers are primarily about “fairness” to kids who come from lower-income backgrounds. This is something that I, myself, have done on a number of occasions while fighting for choice in Wisconsin. Increasingly, however, the question that arises is whether, by adopting the fairness argument for school choice, proponents have abandoned the concept’s ideological foundation, making more it difficult to expand vouchers beyond low-income minority children in failing urban schools.
There is a critical difference between school choice and most welfare programs. Social-welfare programs are redistributive — taking from those of means and giving to those without. School-choice programs are different. In their purest form, they take money that is earmarked for a student in a public school and transfer it to an alternative private school that the student’s parents believe will provide a better education. The money is spent regardless of where a student’s parents decide to send him to school.
This is an important distinction to make, as the idea that school choice should only be available to the poor is diametrically opposed to the vision laid out by choice’s intellectual godfather, Milton Friedman. In a seminal 1955 essay, Friedman argued that the government school monopoly prevents innovation by retarding competition. Public schools are free; rational parents will weigh that fact heavily in their minds when evaluating where to send their students regardless of their income level. Friedman’s model would “make for more effective competition among various types of schools, and for more efficient utilization of their resources,” according to Friedman.
As advocates, we cannot and should not abandon the fairness-based argument for school choice. But if we are to realize Milton Friedman’s vision of an educational free market, we must couple our appeals to fairness with appeals to the economic liberty on which his vision was based. American parents of all classes and income levels deserve nothing less.
— Will Flanders is the Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty’s education-research director.