Democracy, community, and school choice

While proponents of school choice often base their case on student achievement—contending that choice-based accountability leads to school improvement and stronger pupil attainments—opponents seem likelier to argue against choice on the grounds that it fractures communities and undermines democratic values. This dynamic is unfortunate because it leaves the impression that the advancement of school choice is hostile to—or at least indifferent to—issues of community and democracy. The reality, however, is that nothing could be farther from the truth.

There is no doubt that opponents of school choice are spilling more ink than reformers on this question of education for democracy and community. It is, for instance, the mission of the new Network for Public Education to “fight to protect, preserve and strengthen our public school system, an essential institution in a democratic society.” And education historian Diane Ravitch repeatedly makes the case that the traditional public school system is “one of the foundation stones of our democracy” and that “an attack on public education is an attack on democracy.”

However, the case that the traditional school system is the only or even the best path to upholding community and democracy is remarkably weak. In fact, a close look at the history of traditional public education reveals the strongly anti-democratic strains of the common schools movement, some of which we still live with today (a topic that receives a thoughtful book-length discussion in Charles Glenn’s Myth of the Common School).

The troubling but often forgotten truth is that for over two centuries, the traditional public school system was used by a white, largely Protestant elite in the service of an agenda that was often deeply anti-Catholic, anti-black, and often anti-immigrant. Its very structure and, indeed, its hostility to parental choice was driven in part by a desire for the majority to dictate the education and values for every child in this country.

The legacy of this view can be seen in the thirty-eight state constitutions that contain so-called “Blaine Amendments,” prohibiting public funding of schools with religious affiliation. While ostensibly used to protect democratic public institutions from sectarian influences, the incorporation of such provisions was part of an explicitly anti-Catholic movement aimed at forcing children into a Protestant-led education system—forced, that is, by a majority that feared “papacy” and hoped to indoctrinate Catholic immigrants into the “American” way of life. In fact, in 1922, the voters of Oregon actually passed an initiative that made it illegal to send children to parochial schools. (The Supreme Court struck it down three years later in the famous Pierce v. Society of Sisters case.) While opponents of school choice try to portray this hostility to independent schools as obvious or normal, it is not. In fact, the norm among Western democracies like Australia, England, Germany, Italy, Israel, Ireland, the Netherlands, Sweden, Switzerland, and Wales is the advancement of public education through funding to both private and public schools.

The common-school movement was even more anti-democratic on the issue of race. Throughout its history, there has been a deep hostility to the education of African Americans, first denying them access to education outright and later using both de facto and de jure segregation to ensure that black children received an unequal education. In fact, the Alabama constitution still includes a clause explicitly prohibiting black and white students from being educated together at the same school—and moves to rescind this outdated language failed as recently as 2012.

Indeed, it was in response to the hostility of the white Protestant elite that African Americans, like Catholics, took up the task of building up their own network of schools. As Chris Stewart reminds us,

School choice is not new to us, in fact, some might say we invented it. The first charter school that I can find record of was established by Lucy Laney, an African American educator, in the 1880′s. Mary McCloud Bethune came out of Laney’s school, and started her own as well. Black educators and Northern religious societies started independent schools at a time when the State would not, or could not, educate black children. That is a story which repeats itself in a consistent line from that time until now.

Given the history of school choice as a force of liberation and equality, it’s not surprising that a survey by 50CAN found that support for “creating more competition in our school system by allowing more charter schools to open” was 2.6 times higher among black liberals as white liberals and 3.6 times higher among Hispanic liberals.

Drawing upon our rich diversity as a nation and despite the open hostility for an entrenched elite, independent schools of all kinds flourish here. For example, U.S. Catholic schools are the largest nongovernmental school system in the world, and they were built on the belief that parents should have the freedom to ensure that their education was aligned with the own values and principles of their community. Urban Catholic schools, in particular, serve as bedrocks of the communities in which they’re located. And this is true especially for urban poor and minority students they serve.

In their new book Lost Classroom, Lost Community: Catholic Schools’ Importance in Urban America, authors Margaret F. Brinig and Nicole Stelle Garnett found

…that Catholic elementary schools are important generators of social capital in urban neighborhoods. . . . Catholic school closures precede elevated levels of crime and disorder and suppressed levels of social cohesion. Conversely . . . an open Catholic school in a neighborhood (correlates) with lower levels of serious crime. . . . Catholic schools matter to urban neighborhoods not only as educational institutions—although, to be sure, they matter a great deal educationally—but also as community institutions.

If we’re serious about the role of schools in saving communities and buttressing democracy, perhaps we should talk more about giving real voice and opportunities to communities to create and support their own schools. School choice, far from being an attack on our democratic values, has historically been and remains today one of its best expressions of our democracy process at work. Reformers should be rightly proud of the achievement gains that have been secured through choice, but we should be even more proud of the way in which choice embraces a pluralistic view of what public education can and should be.