Having spent the past few years working for a D.C. think tank, I thought I’d seen every argument against school choice. Charter schools skim the best students. Vouchers promote racial segregation. There is no proof that school choice improves student outcomes. (For the record, they don’t, they don’t, and there is.)
These arguments were made almost exclusively by the political Left. Some came from teachers unions and those with a vested interest in preserving the nation’s educational status quo. Others arose from central-planning progressives and their ideological fellow travelers, folks who don’t trust markets or religious organizations and oppose the idea of “public” dollars flowing into them.
But when I moved back to America’s heartland and traveled a bit more off the beaten path, I encountered a new argument that might be more threatening to the spread of school choice than anything the AFT’s Randi Weingarten or the NEA’s Lily Eskelsen Garcia can throw at it. It is the fear that by accepting government dollars, private schools — particularly private religious schools — are opening themselves to a government takeover. “With shekels come shackles” is how a man in Michigan put it to me. A brilliant op-ed in the Wall Street Journal called it the “Pharaoh Effect.”
This is not an entirely unwarranted concern. For decades, private and religious schools have been able to coexist peaceably with American public schools. But Obamacare’s contraception mandate has increased government’s attempted influence on the inner workings of religious organizations. And if the Little Sisters of the Poor aren’t safe in America, who’s to say a school will be?
The school-choice movement itself has fed into these fears as well. In Wisconsin, Louisiana, and Indiana, schools that participate in their states’ voucher programs must administer the same tests (aligned to the Common Core in Wisconsin and Louisiana, no less) that students in traditional public schools take, and are held accountable for the results. Schools that deviate from the state’s curriculum and thus score lower on the state’s tests could be barred from accepting voucher students. While this is not a direct assault on the religious character of a school, it is a move (even if inadvertent) to shape what schools can and cannot teach students. Some school leaders see that as the start down a slippery slope to government takeover.
So what can we do?
If the Little Sisters of the Poor aren’t safe in America, who’s to say a school will be?
First, advocates can work to educate private-school leaders about both the costs and benefits of participating in school-choice programs. While such leaders voice many legitimate concerns, some of their fears are pretty far-fetched. We shouldn’t sneer or snicker, but be honest and forthright about what regulations come with participation. At the same time, we should explain all of the positive aspects of participating in school-choice programs, including the ability to reach a larger number of students and a decreased dependence on private fundraising.
Second, policymakers can change how testing is used in school-choice programs. Schools participating in voucher, tax-credit, and education savings-account programs are held accountable by the families who choose whether to enroll their children. These families need good information to make that choice, so administering tests and making the results public is important, but private schools should not have to participate in the same regulatory scheme that governs public schools. We should never have expected a system designed to regulate a monopoly to be good at regulating a marketplace, and given that state-mandated testing regimes constrain what private schools can do, they ought to be reconsidered. The purpose of testing should be to inform the marketplace, not to impose a uniform vision of what makes a quality school.
Third, we must work to better guard the autonomy of schools. Political compromises are necessary, and it might be that the only way a state legislature can get a voucher program to pass is to concede that schools will administer state tests and submit to the state’s accountability regime. But this is a battle that must be fought vigorously. Private schools are private for a reason. They appreciate their autonomy and have something that they believe is unique. We should both respect and protect that.
School-choice programs are a bulwark against “the Pharaoh who does not know Joseph.” Devolving power to a diffuse set of organizations makes it more difficult for one person or one group to impose their will on everyone. But the more power the government has to regulate and manage those organizations, the more tempting a target they appear to the central planner. School-choice advocates should recognize this and fight against it. Hard.
— Michael Q. McShane is director of education policy at the Show-Me Institute.