Columnist Dan Carpenter answers the question in Sunday’s Indianapolis Star: Vouchers, charter schools, parent trigger laws and the like “send a counter-educational message that one doesn’t have to work to improve a school; just go buy a new one.”
Another way to put it is this: Education isn’t a commodity. It’s not a product that you shop for and buy, after doing a little research on Consumer Reports. Education is, for students, parents and the public, a transaction: What you get out of it is related to what you put into it.
School choice means parents don’t have a real do-or-die stake in their children’s schools, or the public school systems that the schools are part of. If they don’t like the way the school is being run, if they’re unhappy with a teacher or a textbook, they can go elsewhere. The grass is greener … somewhere.
More importantly, they don’t have a stake in the schools attended by their neighbors’ children – or by the kids from across town. If everyone can opt out, if everyone is encouraged to shop around for a better deal, then no parent or citizen has to do the hard, demanding work of making sure the public schools do what’s best for all students.
Caleb Mills, regarded as the father of public education in Indiana, said as much more than 160 years ago. In one of his annual letters to the state legislature, he explained why he advocated “common schools” – a system of public schools that were free and open to all – over the religious academies that competed for students and money in the early 1800s. Mills wrote:
“Sectarian zeal in this department of education is entirely misplaced. It may have its appropriate sphere, but it is downright intrusion when it crosses the threshold of the public school. I have my own religious views and ecclesiastical preferences, but I should regard it as a sad dereliction of Christian duty to withdraw my influence and countenance from those public institutions, which, properly conducted, would prove blessings of untold worth to the rising generation, for the mere purpose of educating my children with the elite of rank or morals. Let every pious man and good citizen give his countenance, patronage and influence to the enterprise of elevating common schools to the highest point of improvement, and then they will be good enough for every one and prove rich blessings to all.”
Mills, one of the first faculty members at Wabash College, was probably the most important influence on the education language in the Indiana Constitution, including its requirement of a “general and uniform system of Common Schools” and its ban on using state money to support religious institutions.
But now Indiana has created a voucher program that’s providing state money for more than 9,000 students to attend private schools, nearly all of them religious schools. And Republican legislative leaders want to expand the program. It is what Mills called it: A sad dereliction of Christian duty.