the moral dilemmas in school choice
If you're looking
to distill the essence of an academic conference, it's often a good
idea to pay attention to the jokes told during the formal presentations.
They tend, in the spirit of self-mockery, to zero right in on the
vexing heart of the matter. This was the case at the conference
hosted at Boston College on March 9 and 10 by Political Science
Professor Alan Wolfe and the Boisi Center for Religion and American
Public Life. The title of the gathering was "A Conference on
the Moral and Normative Aspects of School Choice"; its aim
was a wide-ranging discussion of the ways in which society at large
may be affected by the school-choice proposals (voucher programs,
primarily) that are currently the subject of much national debate.
It's a debate that largely has been limited to questions of economic
benefit and teaching methodology, and the Boisi Center decided to
broaden the discussion. "We do this," a conference pamphlet
announced, "by inviting well known philosophers, historians,
legal scholars, and religious leaders, who are not normally engaged
in these debates, to comment on questions related to the effects
of school choice on the common good."
Enter Richard Mouw, the president of the Fuller Theological Seminary.
Mouw spoke on the morning of the second day of the conference, and
opened his remarks with an account of a recent meeting between French
and American business leaders. The French, he said, devoted themselves
darkly to the discussion of ideas while the Americans blithely and
relentlessly kept bringing the conversation down to the practical
level. Things didn't go well. They went so badly, in fact, that
in a moment of exasperation one of the French representatives turned
to an American colleague and exclaimed, "Well! That may work in
practice but it will never work in theory!"
Mouw's story got the biggest laugh of the conference, and with good
reason: it turns out, in a classically American way, that options
for school choice in this country are more advanced in practice
than in theory.
Much of the first day of the conference was dominated by theorists--the
Princeton University political philosophers Amy Gutman and Stephen
Macedo, and the Brown University political scientist Nancy Rosenblum,
each of whom focused, in a different way, on the idea that the common
good is best served by a common school. (Gutman: "Let's focus on
schools that all children deserve, not just schools that our children
deserve.") Underlying much of the theoretical discussion, unsurprisingly,
was the question of the separation of church and state--or, more
specifically, the question of whether parents can use public funds
to enroll their children at religious schools. Would encouraging
school choice promote religious disagreement and increased sectarianism
at the expense of a common civic education? Would it weaken rather
than strengthen the mission or identity of religious institutions?
What is really at issue--the right of parents to choose an education
for their children, or the right of children to be provided an education
by the state?
A good number of the presenters were decidedly less theoretical,
especially on the second day. Basing their reflections on personal
experience, academic research, and official government data, Meira
Levinson (of the Boston Public Schools), Joseph Viteritti (of New
York University), Charles Glenn (of Boston University), Joseph O'Keefe
(of Boston College), and Richard Mouw all provided evidence to suggest
that religious schools often do as well as public schools, if not
better, in educating students to be critical thinkers, high achievers,
and good citizens, all in a tolerant, nondiscriminatory manner.
(O'Keefe, for example, stressed the successful and utterly necessary
role that Catholic schools are now playing in American inner cities.)
If public schools are failing, the argument went, why not give students
the option to take government money and get themselves a better
education? Wouldn't that further the causes of social justice and
equal opportunity? Might it even be unconstitutional not to do so?
By the end of the conference, after a panel of legal scholars--Wake
Forest University's Michael Perry, St. John's University's Rosemary
Salomone, Harvard University's Martha Minow--had spoken, a somewhat
surprising consensus seemed to have emerged. The majority of participants
agreed that although the government cannot have as its purpose the
promotion of any one religious school over another, it nevertheless
can, and should (and, if proper alternatives are lacking, possibly
must), offer students funding if they choose to attend religious
schools, provided that the schools meet certain government-approved
criteria. (These were left, for the moment, undefined.) The feeling
seemed to be that religious schools offered so many practical advantages
that it was worth considering the idea that public money paid to
religious schools does not amount to the government-sponsored establishment
of religion and therefore does not violate the principle of the
separation of church and state. The lone vocal dissenter to this
view was Nancy Rosenblum, who announced, with considerable alarm,
that she felt the whole discussion had drifted into treacherous
territory and had become an "attack on separationism" that amounted
to "an endorsement of public support for religious proselytization."
Strong stuff, as any such discussion should be. The question of
school choice, entangled with religion, matters greatly to the future
of American public life, and at the end of the conference, many
participants were heard telling one another how refreshing it had
been to approach this subject--so often dumbed-down for economic
and political reasons--with the sense of high moral and philosophical
purpose it deserves. Alan Wolfe announced that already two university
presses had expressed interest in publishing the conference papers.
The attendees seemed to be thinking about the implications of school
choice in new and useful ways. And surely there was more than one
person who couldn't wait to go home and tell Richard Mouw's joke.
Toby Lester is a freelance writer based in Boston.