School Choice: Really Free, Semi-Free, or Flee as Fast as You Can?

School choice is one of the most popular ideas promoted by liberty-minded writers and politicians. Milton Friedman was the most influential advocate of “school choice.” In Capitalism and Freedom (1962), Friedman argued for school vouchers on efficiency grounds. Forty years later, Friedman devoted himself to this one issue by establishing the Milton & Rose D. Friedman Foundation.

Friedman was not alone: As early as the 1950s, George S. Schuyler, Leonard Read and Frank Chodorov argued for private schools to replace socialized education (Chodorov’s essay, “A Really Free School System,” appeared in The Freeman [1954]).

School choice alternatives range from government vouchers to abolishing the public schools. Vouchers have received the most attention because they seem “doable” (more on that later). Eliminating public schools might be the best of all worlds but public choice theory suggests that the “votes just ain’t there.” Yet there is hope for meaningful school choice.

The racial and religious appeal of school choice has broadened its support. Here is an issue that resonates with minority parents and those who want a religious education for their children. Actually, in the 1950s and early 1960s, the racial issue worked against school choice: In Capitalism and Freedom, Friedman discussed southern plans to issue vouchers so that white children would not have to attend school with black children (he did not approve of their motive). As time passed, however, the urban public schools trapped many black children in schools that expected little and delivered even less. Being on the side of concerned black parents put libertarians on the offensive against left-liberals who clung to the public school monopoly, damn the consequences.

Reality is Not Optional

The forces arrayed against school vouchers are incredibly powerful: teacher unions, the Democratic Party, an indifferent GOP, accreditation bodies, and left-liberal lawyers who tie up reform in the courts. In reality, school vouchers are not “doable.” Even when the government approves vouchers, there are strings attached. The interests threatened by school vouchers have an opening to pull those strings before a favorable judge, legislature, school board, accreditation body, and media. The imminent demise of the small federal voucher program in Washington, D.C. illustrates how difficult it is to sustain support for vouchers in the face of such massive resistance.

“Reality is not optional,” Thomas Sowell once quipped. The reality is that the school voucher movement has produced little to show for all its huffing and puffing. Real school choice will come when we seek ways around, rather than through, the Educational Establishment. Reform from within is impossible, abolishing the establishment is impossible, so “what is to be done?”

First, we need to criticize the public school system and never give up. There is no reason why education must be socialized. That is a long-term mission.

Second, we must recognize that school choice is gaining on other fronts. Parents are voting with their feet by schooling at home or sending their children to private schools. The law is on their side: During the 1920s, when the powerful Ku Klux Klan got laws lobbied for laws to force all children, especially Catholics, into public schools the U.S. Supreme Court ruled those laws unconstitutional. The Court stated that children “are not mere creature[s] of the State.” (Pierce v. Society of Sisters, 1925).  That fundamental principle stands as a matter of law.

Third, the First Amendment protection for religious freedom is a bulwark against a public school monopoly. Try as they might, the public school zealots have failed to persuade the courts that tax credits or vouchers violate the separation of church and state. But, remember, that “there are always strings attached”; the courts have accepted “reasonable” regulations of private schools that receive government funds. It is better to avoid public funding and pursue “really free” schools. We can do this now. (Disclosure: As a parent of two children, I send one to a Catholic school, my wife home schools the other. During the 1970s, my wife and I fled public schools for the safe learning refuge of Catholic high schools).

“It’s religion, stupid”

Opponents of stateless schooling argue that it is “dangerous,” “untried,” and “risky.” Tell that to the millions who passed through Catholic and other denominational schools (including Jewish yeshivas). These schools assimilated millions of immigrants during an era of open immigration. Today they are assimilating the inner-city youth written off by the Education Establishment. These schools desegregated before Brown v. Board forced public schools to do so. Compare the vicious battles over race and public schooling with the relative ease with which urban Catholic schools embraced change and reached out to serve their new, mostly black clientele.

Why is religion so important?

First, public schools cannot offer a spiritually-grounded education. What passes for character education is normally a grotesque education school fad centered on self-esteem, learning the value of deviancy (“choices”), or the quasi-spiritual joy of loving the environment and hating the evil corporations that pollute it (Repeat, children: “Reduce, Reuse, Recycle”; “Reduce, Reuse, Recycle. . .”). Little wonder that parents—religious or not—flee with their children from these temples of Political Correctness. Many end up in church-sponsored schools.

Second, the denominational schools have created an infrastructure that survived by producing graduates who went on to leadership positions in business, government, law, and philanthropy. This continuity provides an important element of prestige and political pull.

Lastly, faith matters. Children find it difficult to focus on the long-term benefits of education when the short-term gain of video games, drugs, alcohol, unprotected sex, gang membership tempt them constantly. Church schools provide a better set of peers and adults who will impose immediate consequences (punishment) for bad behavior. Call it “tough love” but it beats indifference.

Politics is Local

Former House Speaker Tip O’Neill said that “all politics is local.” In truth, the state and federal governments have become a barrier to school choice. Nevertheless, the advantage lies to stateless schools at the local level:

*Schools that refuse government funding (“really free schools”) avoid the “strings attached” to vouchers and other forms of aid.

*When state boards or federal bureaucrats harass “really free schools” with regulations, hell hath no fury like concerned parents who bombard their local representatives and congressmen with petitions to redress their grievance against such meddling. My university president is a former congressman and he understood my home school outreach proposal because he knew that these people were his constituents.

*”Sue the bastards”: home schools and other stateless forms of education have battled back busybody bureaucrats by suing or taking a school district to court. The lesson becomes clear: Leave them alone and public schools may go about their business. It is a standoff but better than accepting government aid and have the other side sue to have government regulations applied to pseudo-private schools.

So, ye lovers of liberty, cut the Gordian knot, abandon the fool’s errand of vouchers, and flee to truly free education as fast as you can!

Further reading on the school choice movement and the benefits of “faith schools”:

John D. Merrifield, School Choices: True and False

Richard Vedder, Can Teachers Own Their Own Schools?.

Ed Wojcicki, “A Catholic Education is Worth the Sacrifice,” U.S. Catholic, 29 July 2008.

Laura Vanderkam, “Earning Their Keep: A New Breed of Urban Catholic High School Asks Disadvantaged Kids to Work for Their Tuition,” Reason, August/September 2008.

Jonathan Bean is a Research Fellow at the Independent Institute, Professor of History at Southern Illinois University, and editor of the Independent book, Race & Liberty in America: The Essential Reader.
Full Biography
Beacon Posts by Jonathan Bean
  • Catalyst