Back to School

There is a fundamental problem that bedevils diverse societies. If government has too much power, the result is tyranny. If it has too little, there is no polis—no shared membership in an identifiable national culture. People identify with their religious or ethnic subgroups rather than with the body politic.
That is the crux of the issue presented to the Supreme Court by the Ohio school voucher case it will hear this term. The resolution of that suit will depend in large measure on how the Court understands the purposes of public, or common, schools. If public schools are primarily engaged in the production of a consumer good called education, then the market rhetoric accompanying the voucher movement is appropriate and persuasive.  If, however, public schools are instruments of civic cohesion and the primary vehicle through which we transmit fundamental American values, the issue becomes far more complex.
Voucher systems like those in Ohio permit parents to choose schooling for their children that is consistent with the parents’ worldviews. As proponents point out, the affluent can exercise such choice now; vouchers would simply facilitate the ability of poorer folks to exit the public system. That this fairness argument is rarely extended to other important private goods, like medical care, may cast some doubt on the philosophical consistency of voucher proponents, but the fairness argument is an important one. 
Voucher programs raise fairness issues too. While most parents will undoubtedly make reasonable choices for their children, others will not. Is it fair to use public funds to facilitate the unreasonable choices? Must my tax dollars pay for children to attend the New Age Academy or the Osama Bin Ladin elementary school?
Thoughtful voucher proponents recognize a danger related to such choices. Stephen Monsma, among others, has suggested that government voucher programs allow participation only by schools that reinforce “democratic” values. Such a suggestion implicates both equal protection and religious liberty in frightening ways. Politicians would decide whether your school is “good for America;” and whether your religious beliefs are sufficiently “democratic.” Fortunately or unfortunately, such a system would never survive constitutional scrutiny—all religious schools must participate if any do. We cannot constitutionally privilege mainstream Christian schools over those teaching Islamic (or any other) fundamentalism.
The inescapable truth is that common schools are a public good. While education confers personal benefits, what happens in the nation’s classrooms is also critical to society as a whole. None of us can afford to live in a society in which large numbers of our fellow citizens are unable to make intelligent decisions as voters, jurors, workers or consumers.  Nor can we afford to live in a society where substantial numbers neither know nor share  essential American values. Public schools that are failing at these tasks must be fixed, not abandoned.
America is committed to the fullest range of liberty compatible with nationhood. Refusing to allow parents to exit from the public schools would be tyranny. Facilitating that exit with our tax dollars would be suicide.