Education Choice Is a Civil Rights Issue

(AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

Last week, during a press briefing in the Rose Garden, President Trump called school choice “the civil rights statement of the year,” continuing on to say that “[a] child’s ZIP Code in America should never determine their future.” While it’s not often that I agree with the president, there can be no doubt, given all that we know, that education choice is in fact an important civil rights issue—indeed one of underappreciated importance.

The story is familiar to anyone who pays even a little attention to American education data: black children in the United States attend some of the worst-performing schools in the country.

Moreover, they are forced to attend these substandard schools due to the antiquated policy of trapping children in the schools that happen to be situated in their parents’ ZIP Codes. And if our schools remain racially segregated, then they are also segregated along economic lines, black students being far more likely to attend high-poverty schools. Poverty levels within a given school remain a key predictor of racial achievement disparities.

Education choice should not be a partisan issue, though of course, for largely accidental historical reasons, it is. Democrats are aligned with teachers unions, which oppose competition and parental choice for reasons that go without saying. But is not at all clear that education choice policies should align with left-right or Democrat-Republican affiliations for any principled reason.

Indeed, we should expect progressives to applaud policies that allow a fuller array of choices to parents and children living in impoverished communities with unsatisfactory government schools. And we might expect white suburban conservatives living in relatively good school districts to resist education choice policies that threaten to change the demographic character of their mostly white and middle-class schools.

Historically, in the United States, proponents of compulsory government schooling have wielded it as a powerful weapon in the battle for cultural uniformity, attempting to ban parochial alternatives and inculcating obedience and submission to authority. Progressive era champions of mandatory government schooling without rivals were not liberals; their progressivism was explicitly a reaction against and repudiation of traditional liberalism (associated with constitutionally-limited government, individual rights, and free markets).

They touted their opposition to liberalism proudly, promoting what they saw as a more scientific approach to governing, one in which experts employed by the administrative state would craft sound policy, above the fray of electoral politics.

Today’s progressives can’t very well admit (if they’re even aware) that the ideas underlying compulsory government education are actually illiberal and authoritarian; they instead argue that choice and competition divert needed resources from government schools, as if those schools are entitled, by the mere fact of their existence, to a certain amount of taxpayer funding.

Choice-centric, anti-authoritarian education reforms are sometimes accused of promoting a view that commoditizes education. But to understand that education is a service, subject (completely as we should expect) to incentives and basic economic laws is not to degrade education or its providers, but to elevate and respect education and its importance. To commoditize education would be to promote the model of education that prevails today: a one-size-fits-all industrial factory model that protects the privileged monopoly interests of schools and teachers at the expense of genuine value for the people who consume education services.

If we think about public policy questions as we ought to—concerned about institutional design and incentive structures—it becomes clear immediately that one of the worst ways to approach education is to set up a protected government monopoly service provider that hires exclusively protected government monopoly labor. Everything we know from basic economics tells us what will happen: the service delivered will be overpriced and of poor quality. Why shouldn’t it be? There’s no mechanism allowing the consumer to act on her dissatisfaction—he or she is captive.

One of the ways we can think more clearly and more seriously about policy issues is to address the actual relationships and incentive structures rather than the labels, partisan alignments, -isms, and other such distractions. When we adopt this analytical approach, it becomes strikingly clear—almost self-evidently clear—that concern for students means, just as a matter of course, that resources should follow them. That is, that resources shouldn’t be unconditionally allocated to particular ZIP Codes, or buildings, or teachers. If government-run schooling is really about what its proponents say it’s about, guaranteeing a quality education to every child, free of charge, then it would seem to be uncontroversial that students and their parents ought to be the focus of education policy.

Today, Americans are once again grappling with the legacy of slavery, the most shameful and tragic feature of the country’s past. It is impossible to take the political left seriously on issues of race and civil rights until they embrace education choice and freedom.

David S. D’Amato ([email protected]) is an attorney, expert policy advisor at the Future of Freedom Foundation and The Heartland Institute, and a columnist at the Cato Institute’s Libertarianism.org.