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Uncommon ground

Sorting out 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

Toby Lester is a freelance writer based in Boston.

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Homepage of BC's Boisi Center for Religion and American Public Life. Conference abstracts can be found under "Calendar of Events-
Spring 2001."

  » Related article from the BC Chronicle: Experts Mull School Choice

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