Towards A Good Samaritan World

Tuesday, June 07, 2005

John Tierney has the goods on a disgrace that's (probably) about to happen in Florida: a child will be ripped out of a school he likes, and a school that has dramatically improved his learning, because of teachers' unions' self-interested opposition to vouchers, and because of the Soviet-style secularist fundamentalism that the courts have imposed on American schools in the name of religious neutrality.

As the rest of the US economy has improved over time, schools have not done so, because they are a government-run monopoly. Duh. Didn't we learn anything from the fall of communism?

Meanwhile, for anyone who is puzzled by the sense of grievance manifested by the religious right, this is Exhibit A. We are taxed in order to finance schools where our children are taught curricula that marginalize, undermine, and sometimes directly contradict our beliefs. Religious people are angry about this. But not nearly as angry as they ought to be.

Vouchers allow market forces improve our education system, while getting the government out of the business of drafting curricula, a task which is incompatible with the separation of Church and State. Vouchers can hardly worsen, and will probably do a great deal to help overcome, the grotesque inequities in our education, which underlie most of the social inequality in American life. In short, if there was ever a progressive cause, education vouchers are it.

It's good to see that the cause has penetrated even the reactionary pages of the New York Times. On my webpage is a futuristic article about what education in America will look like after vouchers have taken effect; and an explanation of "why religious neutrality in education requires vouchers."


  • I should preface my comment that I have no opposition to school vouchers.

    That being said a lot of people are taxed to finance areas of government in violation of their beliefs. For example should the U.S. disband the army because of pacifist taxpayers?

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 1:42 PM  

  • Good point.

    I would put it this way. A religiously neutral policy is impossible. Religions can have an unlimited array of views on what things are good and bad to do, and there's no way that policy can meet the demands of every religion.

    A religiously neutral curriculum is also impossible. Any curriculum contains moral and aesthetic values, interpretations of history, and other teachings on which religions express views and may disagree with the school's take.

    Even if a religiously neutral curriculum were possible, teaching it would not be a religiously neutral policy. Some religious might be perfectly happy to send their children to schools that teach a religiously neutral curriculum, whereas others would consider it a religious obligation to patronize only explicitly faith-based schools. But since a religiously neutral curriculum is impossible anyway, that's purely academic.

    The market, however, can to some extent simulate a religiously neutral curriculum by giving people a choice over which religiously-biased curriculum to expose their children to. Not every type of school would be available, of course, but people could vote with their vouchers for what viewpoints should be represented in the schools, and minorities would find ways to cope, by scheduling separate classes, for example.

    Should we set up this market system? Given that it fails to be a religiously neutral policy in any case, what's the advantage? I see several: 1) it's more democratic, since parents and students, rather than judges, get to decide what schools teach, 2) it fits better with the spirit of the Constitution's establishment clause, since the status quo amounts to the creation of a secularist humanist established church, and 3) the people would probably be much smarter in selecting-and-crafting a useful-for-life-and-mind curriculum than judges and politicians are.

    By Blogger Lancelot, at 1:54 PM  

  • My concern with a free-market in vouchers has to do with the fear that a non-religious education might quickly be hard to find.

    Education is not a big profit maker, especially in the poorer districts. What this means is that those who enter into the educational system must have a strong reason beyond profit to do so.

    There are a few who are willing to do so simply because of educational concerns, but quite frankly, those are few and far between (in the most difficult parts of the market - lots of people want to teach motivated, intelligent young people). The most common reason to enter the educational market is because you want to have the opportunity to inculcate your values in the next generation. (We see evidence of this in the fact that most of the schools opened in voucher areas are church-affiliated.)

    (Let me make it clear, I do not consider this desire bad - certainly I believe in my beliefs enough that I would want children inculcated in *my* values and would expect others to want to do the same - It's simply that I don't care enough to spend my life trying to do so.)

    It's no coincidence that before government intervention, non-religious schools were few and far between.

    Unfortunately, things being what they are, the groups with the strongest desire (and willingness to devote their time and money) to reach the young are often those *farthest* away from the mainstream.

    Thus my main concern is that there we would go from mainstream education being the only choice to not having the choice of a mainstream education.

    This becomes even more of a concern if voucher schools have the right to deny access to students. Without that right they lose their most method of improving results, the ability to exclude uninterested or destructive students. With it, and there's the gatekeeper effect. The price for a decent education becomes belief (okay, professed belief) in the school's religious principles.

    Certainly the Jesuits used this idea with great success centuries ago. I'm not certain it's in mainstream society's best interest that it be resurrected.

    By Anonymous Tom West, at 5:26 AM  

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