School Choice and Intellectual Freedom

Michael Dean 1

Education policy is like any other policy. The only question that really matters is, “Who gets the money?” Because whoever has the money will decide where and how children will be educated. “School choice” is the policy that parents—not the state—control the money allotted to educate their children.2

School choice has many justifications. Educationally, it produces a better product. Economically, it costs less. Socially, it reinforces family and non-political “mediating” structures. Morally, it permits assertion of fixed standards of conduct. Spiritually, it permits escape from the intellectual schizophrenia that divides the world into six days under one set of rules and a seventh day under another.

These arguments have merit. This article, however, examines school choice as a matter of political philosophy.

Social Questions and Answers by Process: Democratic Education in the Free Market of Ideas

Two fundamental questions confront every society. First, how does society determine what its values and goals will be? That is, what should society be and do? Second, once the first question is settled, how are citizens convinced to act in accordance with that decision?

Education, even more than politics, is the primary forum in which America addresses these questions. According to “common school” mythology, public education is the democratic process by which students both synthesize and assimilate the answers to society’s great questions. Public schools provide a “market place” free from “private” dogmas where all students participate equally in the give and take of ideas.

By dint of sheer numbers—over 90% of American children attend public schools—“common schooling” is the dominant philosophy of American education. Even those who dispute that education is the “self-synthesis” of social values must still concede that the whole point of education is to develop knowledge, values, beliefs and habits that will continue to guide students once they reach adulthood.

Fly in the Ointment: The Nature of the Child and Who Will Decide?

Despite our reverence for the “free market of ideas,” there are fundamental problems with the myth. A free intellectual market between students and teachers is no less absurd than a free economic market between adults and children.

In economics, we have the good sense to prohibit such “bargains.” In education, however, such arrangements are unavoidable, and the values, beliefs and presuppositions projected by teachers are by far the most influential at the exact times when students are least capable of “informed consent” about what they are being taught. Thus the question is not whether children will be influenced, but rather who will do the influencing. The American political system has developed two possible answers to this question of “sovereignty”—either the state or the parents will control.

The Dilemma of State-Sovereign Education

Government educationists argue that, as a general rule, the state must be sovereign. Parents simply cannot be trusted to do what is best for society. Left to their own ways, they will choose individualistic educations for their children, which perpetuate their own bigotries at the expense of the common good. Private schools are undemocratic by their very nature, selectively discriminating against both people and ideas.3 Common schools, on the other hand, if appropriately managed, ensure that children learn to value equality, tolerance, and the general interests of the collective. Social stability simply cannot exist unless a substantial majority of citizens participate in the unifying, democratizing experience of the “common school.”

Public schools are thus both the foundation of American democracy and indispensable to its preservation. As a matter of public policy, therefore, public education must remain the only viable option for the vast majority of children.

The union of government and school, however, contains an inherent conflict. The essence of government is compulsion—a fact at odds with the ideal of self-determination and free thought which is the essence of free society.

[S]ome scholars have suggested that any government seeking legitimacy must preserve the liberal postulates of the autonomous individual and the value-neutral state. Any attempt to indoctrinate “official” values is inconsistent with the perspective of individual autonomy and, therefore, ought to weaken legitimacy. Inculcating values in children, however, is both essential and unavoidable, even in the public schools. The first amendment therefore functions, at best, only to protect the appearance of individual autonomy. Yet by preserving such appearances, government can retain its legitimacy while permitting official and private power elites to socialize and indoctrinate the populace to support “accepted” beliefs.4

Thus, government schools cannot really practice intellec-tual autonomy. Despite the professed value of “free inquiry” and self-determination, collective beliefs and values must predominate—even to the extent that the general public must be deceived to maintain the aura of legitimacy on which popular government is based.

The Dilemma of Parent-Sovereign Education

In contrast, school choice recognizes that, historically, parents have been primarily responsible for socialization. Politically, school choice also recognizes that individual freedom must predominate over the collective—that the “melding experience” of America is freedom itself, not conformity perpetuated under the illusion of autonomy.

Since the family is the most decentralized unit of authority capable of socialization, it is far more likely than the state to perpetuate traditions of individual freedom. America survived and prospered without government schools, and a government which practices tolerance in honest fact and not in pretense is the best possible lesson in liberality and acceptance of diversity.5

School choice, however, faces the same social problems as state education. Individuals coexist without compulsion only so long as they share common values and beliefs. Early in America’s development, that cohesion was produced by a fairly universal conception of social arrangements referred to broadly as “Judeo-Christianity” or, occasionally, as “pan-Protestantism.”

Government education advocates respond that not only do we no longer have such a dominant worldview within our social and political institutions, it is unconstitutional and repressive to impose such a view upon minority segments of society.6 More extreme advocates even argue that children have a right to be educated “free” from such narrow and oppressive beliefs. (Of course, the problem remains that children not educated according to their parents’ views will nevertheless be educated according to someone else’s.)

In the last half century, the loss of this pervasive worldview threatens the tribalization of American society unless some other unifying factor takes its place. We must therefore obtain cohesion in some other way, and that way is the democratizing experience of public education.

Examining the Metaphor

The great, Norman Rockwell-esque ideal of American polity is that everyone has an equal opportunity to obtain a hearing for his views in the “free” market of ideas—a “neutral” public arena in which those ideas are challenged and tried, and from which “truth” emerges based on the merits of the ideas alone. Because this public arena is a “free” forum, ideas perish or prevail solely on their own merits, not on the ability of their holders to maintain a captive audience insulated from opposing views.

In Abrams v. United States (1919), Justice Holmes coined the “market” metaphor to express his faith in this free exchange of ideas. “[T]he best test of truth is the power of thought to get itself accepted in the competition of the market.” (In Gertz v. Robert Welch, Inc., a later court revealed more clearly the premise implicit in such a market: “Under the First Amendment there is no such thing as a false idea.”7)

The “market of ideas” is a powerful metaphor, implying similarity with, and borrowing luster from, the American free market—the most powerful economic engine in the history of the world. And since that metaphor is the primary justification for transferring authority from parents to state, it is imperative to determine whether it is really apt.

Markets and the Limitation of Ideas

The Nature of Markets

Markets of any nature, whether intellectual, economic, artistic, and so on, are aggregates of human action. They are amoral, merely reflecting the characters and aptitudes of the specific individuals that comprise them.

Economic markets, for example, do not guarantee technological or material “progress.” They merely facilitate progress if the market players are capable of and inclined to such a thing. Historically, some cultures have achieved material and technological progress, some have not.

Likewise, intellectual markets guarantee neither moral nor intellectual progress. They merely reflect the morality, intelligence, character and acumen of those able and permitted to participate in them. As with economic progress, some cultures have achieved intellectual progress, some have not.

Thus, an intellectual market provides no inherent guarantee that the ideas which prevail are better or truer or more useful than ideas which fail. Unquestioning faith in the “market of ideas” is merely an implicit, self-laudatory assessment that its participants are wise, capable and honest seekers, unburdened with anti-intellectual concerns about votes, egos, biases, profits, reputations, pensions, or book royalties.

The Nature of Freedom

Examining the “market” metaphor also requires a look at “freedom,” because “freedom of speech” and “academic freedom” are inseparable from the “market of ideas.” Political considerations have gotten us into the habit of qualitative nomenclature such as the “free world,” but freedom is relative and subjective. Bluntly, freedom is the ability to do what one wishes. It is the ability to act—to do.

This definition may offend moral sensibilities, because we customarily (and commendably) associate a moral content with personal freedom, usually asking “ought we?” as well as “can we?” But freedom is separable from morality. A despot may be evil, but he is certainly more free (in the usual sense of the word) than the martyr whom he holds in prison.

When evaluating the “free market of ideas,” therefore, we must bear in mind that any exclusion or restriction of a point of view is, to the degree of the limitation, an admission that we really do not believe in the efficacy of a totally unrestricted intellectual market.

Notwithstanding, American jurisprudence has developed the dubious distinction between freedom of “thought” and freedom of “action.” Again, however, the freedom to act is the only freedom that really makes much difference. A prisoner has complete freedom to think whatever he chooses, but he certainly is not “free” to speak or to act as we ordinarily use that term.

Inherent Limitations

Following from the preceding discussion, it is obvious that there is simply no universal “market” in which all are “free” and able to participate and in which all ideas and points of view are considered equally and “without bias.” Every market of any kind, especially the market of ideas, reflects inherent human limitations.

In his seminal essay, Individualism and Economic Order, F.A. Hayek wrote,

The peculiar character of the problem of rational economic order is determined precisely by the fact that the knowledge of the circumstances of which we must make use never exists in concentrated or integrated form but solely as the dispersed bits of incomplete and frequently contradictory knowledge which all the separate individuals possess.8

To the obvious rejoinder that experts in a field can be assembled to provide the “best” opinions, he replied, “[T]his is of course merely shifting the difficulty to the problem of selecting the experts.”

Even more important, markets do not guarantee a “neutral” search for truth. We are accustomed to claims of “objectivity” and “neutrality,” but only an omniscient God could be truly “neutral,” unburdened by circumstances of time and perspective. Hayek continued,

What I wish to point out is that, even assuming that this problem can be readily solved, it is only a small part of the wider problem.

. . . . [A] little reflection will show that there is beyond question a body of very important but unorganized knowledge . . . the knowledge of the particular circum-stances of time and place.9

Again, there is no such thing as a “universal” market. If “truth” is a function of the market, then truth is merely the accident of time and place. Thus, the more loudly a speaker proclaims his unbiased ability to consider all points of view, the more surely he is a sycophant or, worse, a self-deluded ignoramus incognizant of his own intellectual and moral limitations.

Education and the Limitation of Ideas

Felt Presuppositions and Worldview

Every cohesive society has some worldview or belief system which its individual members hold more or less in common. Not every individual engages in systematic reflection on reality, life and meaning, of course, but everyone still has some conception of reality on which he bases his actions and decisions.

Such conceptions are based on intuitions about the nature of things: how to tell right from wrong, what is “true,” how things “ought” to be, and so on. These fundamental intuitions I will call “felt presuppositions” because every belief system is ultimately based on “self-evident” presuppositions which are assumed and not proven. Such intuitions are articles of quasi-religious faith, in some respects insusceptible to reason and experience, the customary means of proof.10

For example, no beliefs are more fundamental to western civilization than the notions that all men are “created” equal, that all possess inalienable rights, and that such rights include life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Yet despite the indispensability of these notions, some of the most brilliant minds in history claimed only “self-evidence” in their support.

In sum, though felt presuppositions are ultimately insusceptible to “absolute” proof, they are nevertheless vital because they govern the approaches we take and the conclusions we make when confronted with social problems.

Primacy of Elementary Education

Education is not merely “technical” learning objectives and the experiences designed to achieve them. Instead, it is the sum total of the learner’s experiences—all environmental influences which affect his thoughts and actions.

The “actors” which control that environment always communicate some worldview. It is impossible to engage in any kind of human action (education in particular) without evincing some conception of “the way things are.” That conception may be coherent or chaotic, intentional or inadvertent. It need not even be communicated consciously, but it is communicated nonetheless.

Through this process, children intuitively come to “know” certain felt presuppositions when they are young and least able to understand what is being done to them. Transmission of a worldview is almost always implicit. Only rarely is a teacher aware of what he is doing, and even more rarely is he honest enough to state explicitly the presuppositions he is attempting to teach.

Consider the familiar issue of “religion and state.” When authority figures in government schools consider all matters of human significance without reference to God, students cannot help but conclude intuitively that government considers theistic beliefs irrelevant. Thus the subconscious predispositions of generations of students have been imbued with the state’s operational assumptions that neither the probability nor the consequences of God’s existence are of sufficient magnitude to factor into their behavioral calculations.

I am unconcerned here with whether it is rational, ethical or constitutional to include theological concerns in public education or public policy decisions. I only point out that one set of predispositions is being advanced and another rejected under a fundamentally dishonest guise of “neutrality.”

The “religion” question is probably the most familiar instance of creating subrational predispositions, but the identical process goes on in much more subtle ways regarding virtually all subjects and ideas. Given the nature of the child, it is impossible for such a process not to occur. However, educators and power elites should at least acknowledge that their asserted “free market of ideas” and “democratic processes” are, to a degree, disingenuous.

Education and the Control of Ideas

The Democratic Ideal

John Dewey made it clear that America would look to democratic education to establish social goals and achieve loyalty to them. In My Pedagogic Creed he stated,

By law and punishment, by social agitation and discussion, society can regulate and form itself in a more or less haphazard and chance way. But through education society can formulate its own purposes, can organize its own means and resources, and thus shape itself with definiteness and economy in the direction in which it wishes to move.11

Dewey believed that children would be naturally loyal to democratic decisions in which they themselves participated.

I believe that the only true education comes through the stimulation of the child’s powers by the demands of the social situations in which he finds himself. Through these demands he is stimulated to act as a member of a unity, to emerge from his original narrowness of action and feeling and to conceive of himself from the standpoint of the welfare of the group to which he belongs.12

Thus Dewey believed that the school should replace all other social institutions as the primary determinant of social goals and values.

Economic Limitations

Despite Dewey’s mystic reverence for democratic education, the idea of an “intellectual free market” in government schools has serious problems. A “free” economic market is, by definition, one in which government regulation is minimized. Government exists only to maintain the rules of the market, and participation is based on persuasion, not legal compulsion. In contrast, American public education is one of the most pervasive monopolies in history, controlling by law almost all dollars available for education. The mere fact that disposable income is taken for government education means that most families are deprived of freedom to choose an alternative.

Only the wealthier or most sacrificial parents have any choice other than state-provided education. Thus, govern-ment deprives the great majority of the public of free choice merely by eliminating their capacity to choose anything else. Religious education is an obvious example. Strict separationists talk about the “wall of separation,” but for the last 150 years, government has extended its “wall” at breakneck pace. Not only has its rapacious jurisdictional appetite consumed one enclave of the public life after another, its voracious economic appetite has devoured ever increasing percentages of private wealth (through taxes, inflation and regulation) to fund the advance.

It is ironic that those advocates most willing to fall from the edge of the world defending a student’s ineffable right to wear a smutty t-shirt are oblivious to Leviathan’s economic annihilation of personal liberty. These same advocates generally labor indefatigably erecting an impermeable wall of separation between church and state, yet they are oblivious to the rampant destruction of the most important constitutional wall of all—that between government and citizen. In fact, the very justification for government taxation and control of education is the fear of what parents might do if left to their own devices. Thus, while government education might conceivably be justified on other grounds, borrowing metaphoric luster from free economic markets is unwarranted and disingenuous.

Systemic Limitations

In government schools themselves, the “market of ideas” is supposedly guarded by “academic freedom,” and we reflexively envision government education as an open forum. Whatever discretion a teacher has, however, exists within a very limited ambit.

A carefully controlled environment is inherent in the idea of school itself, particularly in elementary grades where shaping thought and belief is most critical. Professor Ingber’s “elite” decide who will be permitted to teach, which subjects will be taught, which curricula and texts will be used, which teaching methods will be permitted, which books and materials will be available or feted in the library and which will not be purchased.

Political Limitations: Truth and the Views of the Dominant Forces

If “truth” is merely a function of the market, then whoever controls the market controls truth. In The Common Law, Justice Holmes was candid about the way society really functions.

So when it comes to the development of a corpus juris, the ultimate question is what do the dominant forces of the community want and do they want it hard enough to disregard whatever inhibitions may stand in the way.13

This conclusion is disturbingly consistent with Ingber’s views that the first amendment functions best as a subterfuge, preserving the appearance of individual autonomy so that the general populace do not suspect official and private power elites of indoctrinating students to support “accepted” beliefs.”


State Sovereignty and the Market

The Illusion of Competition

As we have seen, an “intellectual market” of six-year olds is ludicrous. Elementary and secondary government schooling is not at all about preserving the market of ideas in larger society, it is about restricting that market to establish ideas which government hopes will persevere into adulthood. Government education exists precisely to prevent an adult population with unacceptably diverse ideas.

As Ingber points out, however, this restriction must be accomplished as a subterfuge to perpetuate the apparent legitimacy of the “popular” state. Government education has dishonestly turned its greatest weakness—the deliberate exclusion and suppression of impermissibly divergent ideas—into its greatest propaganda piece: the preservation of “intellectual freedom” and “diversity.”

In light of this mindset, the advent of “political correctness” should hardly shock. It is a direct result of people educated in a system based on exclusion of ideas in the name of neutrality and tolerance. The result of such a system may well be the greatest intolerance of all: a society full of people who in good conscience deliberately exclude viewpoints (and their adherents) from meaningful participation in social processes—all in the name of tolerance, liberalism and open-mindedness which they believe they truly possesses.

The Illusion of Self-Determination

Government education controls ideas in least three specific ways. The first is obvious. In most states, for example, schools must teach specifically in favor of democratic processes and against antagonistic processes such as communism or socialism. Other more controversial regulations require teaching of human growth and development, environmental education, values clarification, outcome-based education, and so on.

Second, and less overt, is the deliberate exclusion of theistic belief. Though most teachers are unaware, it is still legally permissible to teach “about” religion. But it has been held violative of the First Amendment for a teacher to say, “I believe.” While the system permits authority figures to model approved beliefs, it absolutely prohibits the modeling of other beliefs. One who believes that this kind of policy is “neutral” toward theistic belief would probably enjoy a football game in which one team is not permitted on the field.

Third, and least discernible of all, is the effect of the inherently cynical character of the market process itself discussed below.

Products of the Process

By disguising the philosophical presuppositions on which it is based, American public education perpetuates perhaps the most restricted experience of all—one in which the child is manipulated to accept certain presuppositions without any awareness of the implicit forces and ideas which have shaped his thinking.

Specifically, this means that any “divisive” beliefs must yield to the common democratic good. Thomas Jefferson once wrote to a director of the University of Virginia,

By bringing the sects together, and mixing them with the mass of other students, we shall soften their asperities, liberalize and neutralize their prejudices, and make the general religion a religion of peace, reason, and morality.14

Jefferson’s vision has been remarkably powerful, and the deliberate substitution of democratic process for individual belief has historically been dubbed America’s “civil religion.”

Civil Religion and Displacement of Theistic Principle

One familiar result of American civil religion is the progressive exclusion from public life of those with theistic viewpoints. At the beginning of our constitutional history, the free exercise clause actually meant something. Whether or not the wall of separation was a valid metaphor in our early history, it still was of little significance because government (federal government in particular) had very little to do with lives of citizens.

Over time, however, government has expanded into more and more areas of the public life previously reserved to private action. Concurrently, the United States Supreme Court developed the “wall of separation” doctrine, which prohibits integration of theistic beliefs and governmental activity. The result is that as government keeps “moving the wall,” individuals acting out of a theistic worldview are necessarily “quarantined” in a few limited, ever-shrinking sectors of the public life.

As these principles filtered down into elementary and secondary schools, it inevitably resulted in the now-dominant view that religion is of purely private concern and has no place in public life. What Jefferson viewed as the “softening of asperities,” others view as the removal of objective cultural standards by which to judge and restrict government action.

Civil Religion and Displacement of Moral Principle

The removal of transcendent religious principle from public life has been a high profile affair. Much less noticeably, however, democratic education has also removed traditional moral and civil standards by its disastrous merging of morality and legality.

Popular savants bemoan the loss of “civility,” but that phenomenon is to be expected. Morality and civility have traditionally been a function of private authority imposing standards of conduct thought to be rational and desirable, making possible the learning of moral and social codes more restrictive than those imposed by government.

However, since the Viet Nam era Tinker case, government schools are prevented from imposing behavioral standards higher than the “outer limits of legality” prescribed by the Constitution. Thus, as social limits have become identical to legal limits during children’s formative years, behavior has tended ineluctably toward the lowest common denominator.
A fearful by-product of the “legalization” of America is that the American public now views government as the only legitimate source of limitation on personal freedom. A free society, however, is based on self control, not imposed control. Once government is seen as the only legitimate sanction remaining, society is one small step from a police state.

Civil Religion and De Facto Cynicism

This removal of transcendent principle is not new, however. In the fourth century B.C., the Cynics first formulated the organized doctrine that the ultimate nature of reality is unknowable. Therefore, instead of wasting time speculating about knowledge impossible to obtain, Cynics devoted themselves strictly to “this worldly” concerns. (“Virtue” was still in vogue, and the Cynic Diogenes walked about with a lantern looking for an honest man.)

In more recent times, Hume and Kant much more thoroughly demolished any confidence that ultimate reality is knowable. Prior to their work, epistemology had always been subsequent to cosmology. Hume and Kant reversed the order. Without the assumption of the efficacy of reason, it became increasingly obvious that nothing could be known “for sure.”

Augustus Comte provided an historical characterization for these views. Man’s early, ignorant stage was “religious” in which he looked for truth through revelation. Man’s second stage was “philosophical” in which he looked for ultimate answers through speculative reason. Finally, man has now reached the enlightened “scientific” stage in which the only knowledge of significance is empirical and experiential.

As logic took its course, Cynicism led to Sophism. And just as the Cynics in ancient times, modern education—particularly elementary education where it most counts—has totally abandoned any search for ultimate meaning, either religiously or philosophically. Elementary and secondary curricula are utterly devoid of any discussion of the nature of truth or questions of ultimate significance. Hastened by public education’s removal of objective religious and moral principles from consideration, the same skepticism now dominates modern intellectual life. The significance of this void is not so much that students intentionally disbelieve in transcendent principles, but rather that they intuitively absorb the state’s operant presuppositions that such concerns are irrelevant and inappropriate. State education thus teaches students its own brand of institutional cynicism. Far more deadly than producing students without some faith or belief in the nature of things, this system produces students without even the capability of recognizing their own narrow presuppositions.

For “philosophers,” such cynicism may be a functional way to live. But as a practical matter for society, it destroys the very fabric on which the vast majority of society has traditionally based their lives and by which self-restraint has seemed reasonable. Like the Cynics, American society is obsessed exclusively with “this worldly” concerns. Unlike the Cynics, however, “virtue” is not still in vogue.


Parental Sovereignty and the Market

Acknowledging Personal Limits

School choice does not engage in disingenuous posturing about “unbiased” and “neutral” education. It acknowledges human limitations, readily admitting that the universal cannot be replicated in the individual. It demands for parents the personal liberty to engage in individual decisions about education and permits other parents the same liberty.

Competition among Equals

School choice posits a market of ideas no less than public education. However, school choice is honest in recognizing that an intellectual market is meaningless among children generally lacking the intellectual sophistication and moral constitution to believe and do other than what they are told.

In contrast to the phony market advertised by government education, the market of ideas proposed by school choice is meaningful—one in which a would-be educator must convince a competent adult that the educator’s particular approach to education is most suited for that parent’s child. Like their counterparts in the economic market, the “sellers” of education must convince the “buyers” that purchase of a particular product is the best possible use of the buyer’s resources.

Products of the Process

School choice accomplishes the ideal which state education only professes—preventing imposition of official “state doctrine.” With choice, parents have the actual capability to obtain an education based on transcendent spiritual or moral presuppositions rather than the cynicism of the government monopoly. It makes possible real intellectual and cultural diversity.

Still, choice does not ignore the need for social cohesion. The real melding experience of America was and is freedom.15 A free society best obtains tolerance by exhibiting tolerance—not by surreptitiously repressing real diversity.


The Retreat

Individualists are at a disadvantage against statists because they have inherent reservations about employing political force rather than individual persuasion. In contrast, statists believe government compulsion is fundamentally moral to modify and shape otherwise free choices of citizens.

An individualist’s inhibitions make it inevitable that he will be more reticent than the statist to use taxation and other forms of official compulsion to impose his views, so the current dominance of government education over individual liberty is understandable.

How then, may individual liberty in education and society be recovered?

The Offensive

Moral and Intellectual Offensive

Fundamental change in popular government usually occurs only when the populace at large believes in the fairness or morality of the change. Unfortunately, it is still reflexive among major segments of the population that opposing public education means supporting ignorance. (We have a great deal of work to do.)

The first step of the counter-offensive thus must be to establish that parental sovereignty is the policy truly in keeping with American traditions of personal liberty and tolerance. As to liberty, it is outrageous that government taxes a parent into oblivion, uses that money to educate his child in ways or with views and beliefs with which he disagrees, then bids him go elsewhere if he objects.

As to tolerance, unlike the forced conformity of govern-ment education, school choice both respects intellectual and cultural diversity and preserves its possibility. We should not fear that choice allows other parents to educate their children as strong Moslems or Catholics. Nor should we fear that Black or Hispanic parents will take education into their own hands and produce self-confident children and powerful cultural and economic communities. Instead, we should fear what may happen if such groups are marginalized and manipulated by an unresponsive educational system controlled by elite political interest groups.

School choice is the truly “democratic” process, because it involves virtually every parent in the decision process. Education is no longer the exclusive domain of the elite in charge of government agencies. The real melding experience of America is individual liberty, not imposed conformity masquerading as tolerance.

Legal Offensive

On the legal and constitutional front, we must look to established principles with which the courts are familiar because few successful offensives are mounted as outright assaults on established principle.

First, we must ask courts to give the public “intellectual informed consent.” That is, ask the courts to deal honestly with the philosophical issues. Cease, either deliberately or accidentally, from perpetuating the false notion that government schools somehow tolerate unrestricted diversity in an intellectually neutral forum.

Second, the courts must scrutinize their traditional compartmental analyses. The interminable calls for separation of religious and secular functions seem simple enough applied to church and state as discreet corporate entities, but when applied to the real parties in interest—individuals with integrated theistic beliefs—they amount to psychological vivisection.

Education is not easily divisible into discreet “religious” and “non-religious” functions. Virtually every comprehensive religion speaks to social and political questions as well as to purely “spiritual” concerns. If both theistic and non-theistic belief systems address the same issues, it is hardly “neutral” to exclude one set of views from consideration.

The greater the effort necessary to parse the conjunction of church and state in education, the more obvious it should be that such issues may be nonjusticiable. School choice solves the problem—not by providing better legal analysis, but by eliminating education as a “state action” altogether.

Buying education with a voucher is itself no more an establishment of state religion than buying kosher with food stamps or a social security check. That a significant number of parents would purchase education from a religious provider simply proves that education is a religiously integrated enterprise for a great number of people—one in which the state’s secular monopoly amounts to invidious discrimination and religious disestablishment on a massive scale.
Third, it is customary to speak of “accommodating” religious people. This presupposes that it is the state which is legitimate and that the individual believing parent must go like a mendicant, hat in hand, begging for something which legitimately belongs to the state.

In truth, it is the state which has distorted the normal equilibrium of human action. Left alone to make their own economic decisions, a great percentage of the populace would seek religious or morally distinctive educations. It is incredibly cynical to claim that school choice will have a “religious effect” when in reality it would merely facilitate the restoration of cultural equilibrium. School choice merely allows the public to do with their money what they would have done anyway had government not taxed it away to begin with.

Fourth, we must cease viewing individuals, religious or not, as members of ostracized factions at war with each other. Citizens voluntarily associate in groups based on race, religion, ethnic background, labor interests and political interests. Unless checked, the state through economic and political pressure will gain the ability to eradicate free choices which make such individual distinctions possible. The real war is not between the “public” and religious or ethnic minorities, but between the state and individual citizens.

Fifth, the courts must recognize that individual and familial liberties are meaningless if government succeeds in destroying citizens’ economic ability to exercise them. A government is despotic in direct proportion to the extent that it taxes away the economic ability of the people to speak, associate, assemble, publish or practice religion. If government taxes away the marginal ability of individual citizens to engage in those vital functions, their exercise will become the exclusive domains of massive corporations, foundations, trade organizations and bureaucracies economically powerful enough to overcome governmental impediments.

Without too much exaggeration, the fundamental evil challenged by the American Revolution—economic dominance of government over private citizen—is virtually lost in the modern civil libertarian’s weird fascination with felons and topless dancers. The courts must be re-sensitized to government’s economic threat to liberty. Once sensitized, they will be much less reticent to accept policies which return a measure of control to individuals.

Political Offensive

Government education proponents have masterfully succeeded in building a quasi-religious devotion to government schooling. Once that devotion has been tempered by exposing the fallacies of the system, it will be much easier for individual members of the public to understand that their best interests are served by deciding themselves how to spend their own money.

It is unrealistic to believe that government will cease funding education. So as long as government remains in that business, the ideal mechanism would be “Individual Education Accounts,” which provide each child with a fixed dollar amount for education based on the child’s particular educational needs. Funds not used for a current year would be rolled over into an individual account and made available for post-secondary technical, professional or academic training.

Such a device gives parents a real incentive to maximize results and minimize cost. Once accustomed to actually making their own decisions with their own money, parents will never go “back to the farm.”


It is statists who are terrorized by real diversity. They are more than willing to sacrifice history’s greatest experiment in liberty for the security of the hive. Educational choice is not the end of intellectual and cultural diversity; it is the last, best hope for its preservation.

Educational choice is truly the greatest public policy issue of the century. Who controls the schools, controls the future.

1 Michael D. Dean, Esq., is the General Counsel for First Freedoms Foundation, Inc.

2 It is beyond the scope of this paper to discuss whether the state should be involved in education at all. At present, there is no realistic possibility that it will remove itself, so this paper deals only with the practical political situation as it actually exists.

3 Although it also beyond the scope of this paper to discuss the sociological aspects of school choice, a brief comment is necessary because the charges of racism against school choice are so pervasive.

As a practical matter, the vision of Brown v. Board of Education (1954) is largely unrealized. The great enclaves of segregation are still urban public schools, not private schools. Court-ordered integration has often exacerbated social problems and created new ones more intractable than ever.

In contrast to “top down” solutions to social problems, school choice recognizes that it is beyond the right or ability of government to know what is best for every child. Because school choice is “consumer driven,” it facilitates creation of a wider variety of schools from which parents may select the education most appropriate for their children.

4 Stanley Ingber, “Socialization, Indoctrination, or the ‘Pall of Orthodoxy’: Value Training in the Public Schools,” University of Illinois Law Review 1 (1987): 71.

5 The recent fervor for “multiculturalism” in government schools is, to a great degree, the guilt reflex of the very institutions which for decades attempted to eradicate diversity. (As with earlier “top down” integration policies, these efforts have also been frequently counter-productive, even in purely social terms.)
The landmark parents’ rights cases resulted from state efforts to impose uniformity. In Pierce v. Society of Sisters, a Supreme Court generally considered “reactionary” declared that children were not “mere creatures of the state” and held unconstitutional Oregon’s attempt to force all children to attend government schools. In Meyer v. Nebraska, the same Court held unconstitutional a Nebraska law prohibiting teaching of the German language, the purpose of which was to subjugate German cultural heritage.

6 One might argue with some justification that the loss of a general Judeo-Christian worldview and resulting cultural Balkanization are the direct results of two government policies. (1) Constitutional decisions in the 40’s, 50’s and 60’s purposely disestablished that view from American schools and, ultimately, from American society. (2) Government first enforced slavery of blacks, then deliberately segregated them and other minorities from participation and opportunity in society—frequently with the apparent sanction of those claiming a Judeo-Christian worldview —leading inevitably (and understandably) to caustic resentment against Judeo-Christianity and society by those unjustly excluded.

7 The troubling corollary of such a proposition is that there is no such thing as true idea, either.

8 F. A. Hayek, Individualism and Economic Order (Chicago: University of Chicago, 1948), 77.

9 Ibid., 80.

10 This is not to discount natural law bases of common reason and experience, nor is it to take sides in the debate between “classical” and “presuppositionalist” philosophy and apologetics. But classical natural law thinkers, pagan Cicero and Christian Aquinas among them, did refer frequently to “recta ratio,” not “sola ratio.” Even more basic, they began with the “self-evident” assumptions that there is such a thing as “reason” and that “reason is reasonable.”

11 John Dewey, My Pedagogic Creed (New York: E. L. Kellog, 1897), 17.

12 Ibid., 3.

13 Oliver Wendell Holmes, His Books, Notices, and Uncollected Papers, ed. Harry C. Shriver (New York: Central Book, 1936), 187.

14 Herbert Baxter Adam, Thomas Jefferson and the University of Virginia (Washington: Government Printing Office (1888), 91.

15 In addition to mere liberty, commonly accepted moral and behavioral restraints are also indispensable to what the founding fathers called “ordered liberty.” It is beyond the scope of this paper to discuss how common moral assumptions arise apart from government compulsion. As only one example, C.S. Lewis noted moral axioms common to all religions which he called the Tao. It is not the selection of a particular set of moral absolutes that makes government education so destructive, but rather the implicit denial that confidence in moral absolutes is even possible.