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Choosing Choice Is Choosing Families

September 17, 2015 - 2:38pm CDT

Education debates are going back to their roots. The big education debates of the 21st century are shaping up along lines similar to those of the education debates of the 19th century. If we continue in this direction, we will rediscover that at the root of our education debates is a debate about the family. The government school monopoly is one of the most important factors undermining the family unit; universal school choice would be a big step toward strengthening the family.

In the 20th century, the big debates in education were mostly one form or another of the same question: “How can we, the professional class of education experts employed by the technocratic state, most effectively raise other people’s children to conform to our values and expectations?” The big question that had rocked education in the 19th century was forgotten—it was thought to be settled forever. Parents had full authority to direct the rearing of children until age 5; after that point, the technocratic state had primary authority to direct their rearing, and parents were relegated to a supporting role.

Only a few eccentric people in the 20th century, like Milton Friedman, knew enough to continue asking the big question of the 19th century: Is it actually a good idea for the technocratic state to supplant parents as the primary authority in the rearing of children?

At the root of our education debates is a debate about the family. The government school monopoly is one of the most important factors undermining the family unit; universal school choice would be a big step toward strengthening it.

This was not a question of whether there ought to be schools. It was a question of whom the schools should work for. Are schools an extension of the family, helping parents raise their children the way the parents want them raised? Or are schools an autonomous branch of the technocratic state, answering not to parents but to professional experts who know how children ought to be raised better than parents do?

There were schools in this country before the 19th century, but they were not creatures of the technocratic state. There was no technocratic state. Schools were responsible to parents. The rise of the technocratic state in the 19th century forced upon us a great debate about the future of schooling. But by the end of the 19th century, the debate seemed settled forever in favor of the technocrats, and the question was mostly forgotten.

It is not forgotten anymore. The two big debates in education today are over parental choice and federal centralization of power over schools. Both these debates are about the authority of parents versus the authority of technocrats. We are—slowly, and for the most part without realizing what is going on—reopening the big question of whom schools ought to work for.

It was the failure of the government school monopoly in the 20th century that brought us back to the big question of the 19th. School choice and federal centralization of power are both responses to this failure. Some are seeking to reverse course, hoping that the moribund school system can be revitalized by putting parents back in charge. Others are seeking a stronger technocracy that will be more capable of achieving its goals.

The failure of the monopoly is not necessarily the failure you might expect. Contrary to popular belief, the quality of the education provided by the school monopoly did not go down as such. Test scores and graduation rates have been relatively stable. Its failure consists in three things.

Educational quality has remained frozen in place at a totally unacceptable level; we cannot continue trying to face the challenges of the 21st century with the schools of the 19th. A self-serving “blob” of special interest groups has colonized the monopoly system, consuming more and more money each year at the expense of both taxpayers and the public fisc. And, most importantly, as the American cultural environment becomes more pluralistic, a monopoly school system is incapable of raising children with good character; it cannot give children a good reason to be good without violating the First Amendment. 

However, a failed school system is not the only damage done by the government monopoly. The family itself is also undermined.

In his masterpiece The Closing of the American Mind, Allan Bloom pointed out that the collapse of the family in the second half of the 20th century occurred because the family had long since become “spiritually empty.” The sexual revolution and all the family-destroying forces it unleashed—above all, easy divorce—would never have seemed plausible or legitimate to people if they still had a sense that the family unit mattered profoundly. Their understanding of what the family was for had decayed to the point where marriage, for many, no longer seemed to be worth saving—and even those who did want to save it found they didn’t know how to make a case for it. They were left simply shouting and fuming.

So how did the family become spiritually empty in the first half of the 20th century, such that it was ready to collapse by the second half? Many factors were in play, but the government school monopoly was a major one. The family was no longer of vital importance for childrearing.

Old-fashioned people might admonish parents to “stay together for the children,” but in the 20th century this timeworn phrase no longer connected with parents’ own experience. Why was an intact home so important to the kids? They spent more waking hours at school—where the home is seen as irrelevant.

At a deeper level, the social order had been inverted. In the 18th and 19th centuries, the family had been understood as the primary unit of society; larger political and economic structures existed to mediate relations between households, not between individuals as such. Relations between individuals within a household—such as the work of childrearing—were the family’s business, except in extreme cases. All that was now gone. The family was no longer primary; the technocratic state was primary.

School choice would be a big step toward strengthening the family. It would reassert the primacy of parents over every stage of education until the point where children leave home and gain the rights of adulthood. In short, if we want people to treat the home as if it mattered to the biggest things in life, we might start by making it actually matter to those things.

It’s unfortunate that the school choice movement is mostly a coalition of progressives and libertarians. Conservatives who care about the family ought to be equally important in its ranks. And they would provide an important mediating influence. As school choice programs continue to become more universal—less restricted to poor children alone—tensions are heating up in the movement.

Progressives are uncomfortable with universal choice. Libertarians, with their rhetoric of individual self-interest, struggle to make a case they find convincing. But progressives care deeply about the poor, and they increasingly recognize that the collapse of the family is destroying the poor. Conservatives who care about the family could make a case for universal choice that they might find more compelling.