Is Choice Magical?

Soon after my book, Education Reform: Confronting the Secular Ideal, was released, John E. Coons, one of the earliest, most recognized, and most respected scholars associated with the school choice movement, reviewed my book. Though complimentary, he had one serious misgiving. Here is what he said and where he was wrong.
Three fourths of his review was very complimentary, but he ended on a seriously negative note that virtually annulled his previous compliments. After bemoaning the fact that the book said little about various school choice models (which I believe would have detracted from my central theme), Coons surmised that "parental empowerment" through choice alone was the driver of better education and that my emphasis on the value of religious schools was rather irrelevant. Here are his words:

"this book – never addresses the substance of the claim that parental empowerment is the best hope for producing the ideal citizen – whether the parent chooses a religious or an atheist school.
For the child to experience the love, responsibility and hope of the empowered parent is, some of us say, the wellspring of the child’s own aspiration for family and for something higher than self-satisfaction. But this conviction holds regardless of the school chosen. And that broader claim deserves notice. In fact, I think Engelhardt believes it but weakens the insight by the implication that most parents will save the day by choosing the religious school.

Now, if parental sovereignty were to be recognized as a discrete source of effective moral learning at school, there could be a logical problem with Engelhardt’s religious argument for choice. At least in theory, the superior outcomes he attributes to faith-based education could be simply  – or at least partly – a function of the exercise of parental choice quite apart from the chosen school’s message about the source of the good. And how could one argue empirically for religion as the true cause of civic devotion when religious schools today are in fact all parentally chosen? Is it not possible that those non-religious schools that also get chosen are equally effective at producing good citizens?

The relatively few secular schools in the private sector seem to graduate their share of caring types. Meanwhile, even more confounding, in the public sector, the “civic gap” between pupils of inner-city and (chosen) suburban schools is all too evident. I strongly favor choice of faith-based schools, but our supporting policy arguments need to broaden. They must allow, and even emphasize, the real possibility that parental choice itself is the master principle. Parents with no interest in religion – and those schools that they would choose – merit recruitment for this crucial opportunity for the common good."
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Both Coons and I support school choice that recognizes the rightful authority of parents over the education of their children. Additionally, we both support the availability of religious educations. However, he has long argued for choice based solely upon the values of "market competition in education" as the driving force of better schools. I agree with his basic premise regarding the almost magical power of competition to improve products (as noted by Adam Smith), however competition only transforms "products" toward the desires, standards, and understanding of the "consumers." Competition is good, but only as beneficial as the choices presented.

Here is where Coons missed it. First, we have growing school choice in America today, but overwhelmingly the choice movement is leaving out religious schools. In fact religious schooling is being hurt by school choice. Having more choice among secular schools is NOT enhancing the moral and civic development of children even though their parents have been empowered. Those schools CANNOT nurture children in the ways religious schools can - nor do they desire to! In other words, choice alone isn't enough, one must have good options and parents with the wisdom to discern the best choice.

Ultimately, Coons puts the cart before the horse. Coons seems to assume "goodness" is intrinsic to parents. He claims that giving parents choice will magically allow them to pass on wholesome values and beliefs to their children regardless of the school they choose. I rather believe that cultural trends related to sex, marriage, crime, and religion show that American parents are largely ignorant of the qualities of good citizenship and have little to pass on to their kids - even with more "empowerment." I argued that America has lost its moral and philosophic sharpness because of generations of secular schooling, and this sharpness must be restored through the education day. Families need to engage the claims, values, and benefits of worldview based life
before they can make good educational choices.

The purpose of my book is to reveal the value of religious education to a scholarly community and the public who is ignorant to the value and role of worldviews in education. Yes, school choice is necessary and empowering parents is necessary, but it is the
content of an education that most influences a child's intellectual and moral growth. Choices made from a position or relative ignorance (as most people are regarding worldview and religious education) gain little!
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