The Supreme Court decision could end the government-school monopoly

By Phil Lawler ( bio - articles - email ) | Jul 01, 2020

Are my eyes deceiving me? Did the Washington Post run an editorial in favor of school choice?

Here’s what I thought I read on the Post editorial page today, in a reflection on the Supreme Court’s decision in the Espinoza case:

The winners were low-income parents who want the best for their children, and their sons and daughters who might benefit from what wealthier families take for granted: choice in selecting an appropriate school.

That can’t really be the editorial stand of the Washington Post, can it? Read the editorial for yourself, and let me know if I’m hallucinating.

If I read the column correctly—if even the Post has finally grasped the truth that competition can enhance educational quality—then the Espinoza decision really could be a watershed moment in American history. We could witness an explosion in educational alternatives, a burst of entrepreneurial creativity, and an end to the encrusted and inefficient government educational monopoly.

Since 1644, when the first public school funded by taxpayers was established (in Dedham, Massachusetts, where I was raised), we Americans have come to rely more and more heavily on local public schools at the elementary and secondary levels. There have always been private schools as well, and in latter part of the 19th century Catholic parochial schools became a significant factor, but the public schools have always dominated.

The public-school system worked reasonably well, producing literate students at moderate expense, for decades. But by the late 20th century, the system was clearly headed for trouble, for two reasons:

First, the costs of supporting the public schools soared, while the results—the educational standards for graduation—sagged. Taxpayers now find themselves paying $10,000 or more per student each year (over $20,000 in New York). Yet test scores continue to decline, and teachers report that they are forced to spend more time on discipline, less on instruction.

Second, the broad consensus that supported the public schools for generations—the basic popular agreement on what students should learn and how they should behave—broke down, most notably during the cultural turmoil of the 1960s. Today our fractured communities can no longer agree on appropriate educational standards or on norms of student discipline. Is arithmetic more important than sex education? Should boys be excluded from the girls’ bathrooms? There is no consensus, and therefore no basis on which to judge the needs of a community school.

To complicate matters still further, local communities have gradually lost control over the policies of their local schools, as state and federal regulators set burdensome standards. Parents who were unhappy with their children’s schools could no longer hope to resolve their problems by talking to neighbors at a town meeting. The public-school system no longer responded to educational “consumers.”

Economists could readily explain this phenomenon. A monopoly, protected from competition, tends to produce an inferior product at an inflated price, leaving consumers—in this case, the parents of students and the frustrated taxpayers who subsidize them—helpless. And the public schools were effectively a monopoly. Only a minority of families could afford the tuition payments at private schools; only a smaller minority (albeit a growing one) would make the commitment to home schooling.

What’s the solution? As with any monopoly, allow competition! Give parents realistic options; give them the wherewithal to send their children to the schools they prefer.

Up until this week, however, real educational choice has been blocked by state laws—the so-called “Blaine Amendments”—that prohibit state support for religious schools. With the Espinoza decision, the Supreme Court has removed that roadblock. Now it’s only a matter of time—and political will—before inventive state legislators find ways to empower the parents of school children.

In Montana, in the case that gave rise to the Espinoza ruling, legislators had done exactly that. The state created a scholarship program, funded by tax credits, that provide funding for families. Notice: the funding did not go to religious schools; it went to the parents of qualified school-age children, to be used at any accredited educational institutions. As Chief Justice John Roberts remarked, the First Amendment “is not offended when religious observers and organizations benefit from neutral government programs.”

Starting right now, legislators who favor educational choice should be working on plans to follow the Montana example, to offer support for parents seeking educational alternatives. Armed with this powerful Supreme Court precedent, pro-family organizations should be challenging the “Blaine Amendments” that still survive—relics of the ugly anti-Catholic bigotry of the late 19th century—in 38 American states.

“Choice,” we have learned, is a powerful political slogan. Parents want what is best for their children, and educational choice gives them the opportunity to choose what is best—or, if they cannot find a good school, to start their own school, and still expect some government support!

Since at least the time of Richard M. Nixon, every Republican presidential candidate has made an appeal for educational choice in a major campaign speech. Unfortunately, once elected, Republican presidents have done little or nothing to fulfill those campaign promises. After Espinoza, there’s no longer an excuse. Educational choice is an issue whose time has come.

Phil Lawler has been a Catholic journalist for more than 30 years. He has edited several Catholic magazines and written eight books. Founder of Catholic World News, he is the news director and lead analyst at CatholicCulture.org. See full bio.

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  • Posted by: fenton1015153 - Jul. 06, 2020 9:28 AM ET USA

    It is wonderful to see the proper use of choice. Sadly, the content of education has been savagely treated resulting in our children receiving indoctrination rather than education. IMO education should equip a person to read well, speak well, write well and have knowledge of math and geometry. Education should not be about rewriting history or teaching a narrow understanding of the human condition. With computers we should be able to teach without as many teachers, administrators or sports.

  • Posted by: mary_conces3421 - Jul. 04, 2020 5:40 PM ET USA

    I agree with “doverbeachcomber” about the pitfalls. Also, the problem remains of how ordinary people with ordinary children (not super-talented types) are going to choose schools that offer rigorous, disciplined learning over institutions that offer well-packaged, flattering fluff.

  • Posted by: grateful1 - Jul. 03, 2020 7:24 PM ET USA

    Nice piece, Phil, but it would've been nicer had you given a nod to Trump for keeping the issue in the forefront of his educational policies, naming Betsy DeVos Sec'y of Education, & appointing 200 federal judges who will at least give our kids a fighting chance against the teachers' unions that daily indoctrinate them in SJW leftism. What's more, Trump has managed to do all this while under non-stop attacks from every side, including his own party. He has my gratitude--he deserves yours.

  • Posted by: shrink - Jul. 03, 2020 8:12 AM ET USA

    "Republican presidents have done little or nothing...." Actually, GW Bush pushed for school choice especially in the form of charter schools while president; as gov. of TX he pushed hard for vouchers, but lost in the courts. Unfortunately, he joined up with Teddy Kennedy on the No Child Left Behind which poured billions into existing public schools, with little return on investment. He supported state level school voucher programs, like the one Jeb Bush crafted for Florida.

  • Posted by: dover beachcomber - Jul. 02, 2020 5:17 PM ET USA

    A victory, yes, but not without pitfalls; an important one here is contained in the statement that with this money parents would be free to send their children to “any accredited educational institutions.” Ultimately, politicians and the same old education bureaucrats control the accreditation process. Will they fairly accredit schools that teach real Catholic morality?