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Choice in education

Enabling school choice is not just moral, it will help drive innovation and lower costs for everyone's education

The state of Zangania recently became wealthy and is looking to modernize their social programs. They appoint a committee to make sure no Zanganian lacks the basic food needed to be healthy. After a number of meetings, the committee proposes a new program:

Each town in Zangania will prepare similar food (of varying quality) and provide it for free to their residents. The state and the towns will charge their citizens significant taxes to cover the costs of the new food programs. Some people might want higher quality food, or have religious restrictions on their diet, or simply prefer other food than what’s available. These people can pay for other food on their own, but they won’t get any voucher or tax credit from the government for not partaking in the general food sharing program.

Many people support this new proposal (they don’t like how some immigrants eat different food), and it becomes the law.

The Moral Choice

Public schools provide one option to educate children. Yet for a variety of reasons, people may prefer a different option for educating their children. These parents pay taxes that fund other children’s education, and they save the public school system money by not sending their children to it. Why shouldn’t they be given any assistance to help cover their own children’s education?

It would be one thing if all public schools were perfect systems of education to which no one could raise any objections. Yet many districts have lousy public schools. Why should children in such districts not be given a better alternative? Many people feel that they cannot send their children to public schools for religious reasons. Why should such people not be accommodated? The government takes the people’s money and should spend it in a way that is in the interest of the people. What moral basis does the government have for taking away the choice of the people and declaring only one system to be legitimate?

The Cost

New York public schools spend over $20,000 per student each year, and residents need to pay high taxes to cover these expenses. Some parents choose not to send their children to public schools, but after such high tax rates, many of them cannot afford similar tuition rates for their own children. The government takes a significant portion of their income but does not give them any credit for saving the public school system over $20,000 per child. People complain about cuts to some extracurricular activities in public schools, but meanwhile many private religious schools operate on far smaller budgets. They cannot afford to pay competitive salaries for their teachers, to build science labs or baseball fields, and have almost no extracurricular activities to speak of. Public schools offer a large catalog of courses, extracurricular activities and athletic pursuits. Perhaps the public schools could make cuts to their bowling teams so that other students could learn, for example, computer programming?

Competition and Quality of education

Besides the basic moral argument to let people attend the schools of their choice, there’s also the practical goal of improving education for everyone. Providing people with vouchers to attend private schools brings true competition into the education market. Competition drives innovation and lowers costs. It’s hard to build the best product or service to meet the needs of customers, but employees work hard to achieve this since their own success depends on it. Customers choose the businesses that meet their needs best, and poorly performing businesses close down. Look at the success of the American tech companies to see what can be achieved when people compete, innovate, and focus on providing the needs of customers.

Why is there such a big disparity between the performance of the American public school system and that of American businesses? Perhaps since American education lacks this competitive force that drives innovation, and instead has institutionalized a system that rewards tenure over performance. The public schools have little incentive to be efficient or innovative when they are provided with government funding regardless.

We recognize the value of competition when it comes to clothing, computers and cars. Yet for something far more important, society seem to care more about the school administrators and teacher unions than about our children’s education.

Jewish tradition on competition in education

As opposed to the free markets in most of US law, an opinion in the Talmud restricts certain forms of competition:

Rav Huna said: If a resident of a neighborhood (lit. alley) sets up a mill, and then another resident of the neighborhood comes and sets up a mill next to his, the law is that the first one can stop the second one, for he can say to him “you are cutting off my livelihood”. (Bava Basra 21b, translation based on Artscroll)

Yet the Talmud goes on to state that even according to this opinion, there would be no restriction on competition in education:

Rav Yosef said: Rav Huna concedes that with regard to those who teach to children, he [a teacher already already established in a neighborhood] cannot prevent another from teaching there, for the Master said, “Jealousy between scholars increases wisdom.”

When it comes to ordinary commodities, Rav Huna suggested certain restrictions to protect the livelihood of the incumbent. Perhaps if we restrict competition in the pizza market, people won’t have the best possible pizza, but the original pizza owner will keep his job. But even Rav Huna agrees that this restriction on competition would not apply to the education system, since the quality of children’s education is clearly more important than protecting the jobs of the incumbents!

Other countries and history of US measures

Western European countries (e.g., Belgium, Denmark, France, the Netherlands, Spain and the U.K.) provide assistance to private schools and large percentages of their populations attend such schools. Why should the free-market US have such a socialist system of education? The historical reason for this state of affairs is largely explained by anti-Catholic biases. In the late 1800s, many Catholics immigrated to America and created their own schools as an alternative to the public schools of the day (which were actively Protestant). The Protestant population feared the Catholic immigrants and worried that they would “Catholicize” America.

1876 cartoon depicting Roman Catholic bishops as crocodiles attacking public schools. (Wikipedia)


Congressman James G. Blaine proposed an amendment to the federal Constitution to prohibit public funding for religious entities. This amendment failed to pass on the federal level, but many states passed similar amendments on their own. This nativist attitude helped establish the public school system as the only tax-supported option in American education. In the 21st century, society (with some exceptions) has become more open to different groups and beliefs . Perhaps it is time to reconsider 19th-century nativist policies.

Separation of Church and State

Some think that providing vouchers would violate the separation of church and state. Yet in Zelman v. Simmons-Harris (2002), the Supreme Court ruled that this is not the case:

A school voucher program which allows parents to send their children to a private school is not in violation of the Establishment Clause, [even] where the vast majority of participating private schools are affiliated to religious groups. (Casebriefs summary)

While vouchers are allowed at the federal level, a bigger issue is the state-level Blaine Amendments. However, some states (like New Jersey) do not have Blaine Amendments, which would make it easier to pass laws in support of school vouchers. In other states, people can still push for laws that provide more school choice or tax breaks, and perhaps try to repeal the Blaine Amendments in the future.

Potential concerns

Some people attack school vouchers since they claim that they take away money from the public schools. But since schools end up spending a certain amount per student, vouchers don’t actually take away from anyone in the long run. It seems that those who make this claim just don’t want there to be competition with the public schools.

Another issue raised is that private schools may spend the money improperly or may fail to accomplish the right educational goals. However, this can be addressed by government oversight instead of by banning vouchers entirely. If Europe can build a reasonable system of private schools that rely on government money, America can as well. American public schools spend more than those of most other Western countries and produce worse results, so perhaps we should be more concerned about public schools misspending money than about private schools doing so.

School choice is the moral option to provide to people and will help improve the education options of everyone, including in public schools. We can keep the status quo established through biases and maintained by special interests, or we can look to improve the education offered to everyone.

About the Author
Ariel is a software engineer at Google and the founder of Learneroo.com. The opinions expressed here represent his own views (if even that) and do not represent the views of his employer.
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