In my previous essay on charter schools, I considered the quality argument. The idea is that charter schools provide a better alternative to public schools and should receive public money so that poorer families can afford to choose them. The primary problem with this argument is that it makes more sense to use public money to improve public schools rather than siphoning money from them. I now turn to another aspect of choice, that of  values.

While parents want to be able to choose a quality school for their children, some parents are also interested in having an alternative to public schools based on their values. This desire forms the basis for the value choice argument for charter schools. While public schools are supposed to be as neutral as possible, some see public schools as problematic in two broad ways.

One way is that the public schools provide content and experiences that conflict with the values of some parents, most commonly with their religious values. For example, public schools often teach evolution in science classes, and this runs contrary to some theological views. As another example, some public schools allow students to use bathrooms and locker rooms based on their gender identity, which runs contrary to the values of some parents. As a third example, some schools teach history (such as that of slavery) in ways that run afoul of the ideology of parents. As a final example, some schools include climate change in their science courses, which might be rejected by some parents on political grounds.

A second way is that public schools fail to provide value-based content and experiences that parents want them to provide, often based on their religious and political views. For example, a public school might not provide Christian prayers in the classroom. As another example, a public school might not offer religious content in the science classes (such as creationism). As a final example, a public school might not offer abstinence only sex education, which can conflict with the values of some parents.

Charter schools, the argument goes, can offer parents an alternative to public schools, thus giving them more choices regarding the education of their children. Value-based charter schools can avoid offering content and experiences that parents do not want for their children while offering the content and experiences they want. For example, a private charter school could teach creationism and abstinence only sex education.

It might be argued that parents already have such a choice: they can send their children to existing private schools that match their values. But, as noted in my first essay, some parents cannot afford to pay for private schools. Since charter schools receive public money, parents who cannot afford to send their children to private value-based schools can send them to value-based charter schools, thus allowing them to exercise their right to choose. As an alternative to charter schools, some places have school voucher systems which allow students to attend private (often religious) schools using public money. The appeal of this approach is that it allows those who are less well-off to enjoy the same freedom of choice as the well off. After all, it seems unfair that the poor should be denied this freedom simply because they are poor. That said, there are problems with ideological charter schools.

One concern about value-based charter schools is that funding them would fund specific values with public money. For example, public money going to a religious charter school would be a case of public funding of that religion, which is problematic in many ways in the United States. At least until the Supreme Court removes that obstacle. Those who favor value-based charter schools usually do so because they are thinking of their own values being funded by public money and not value-based charter schools they would dislike. However, it is important to consider that allowing such charter schools opens the door to funding values other than one’s own. For example, conservative Christian proponents of religious charter schools are no doubt thinking of public money going to Christian schools and are not considering that public money might also flow to Islamic charter schools, to a Satanist school or a charter transgender training academy. Or perhaps they believe, probably correctly, that they can ensure the money flows in accord with their values.

Another concern is that funding value-based charter schools with public money would deny others their choice. There are many taxpayers who do not want their money going to fund values they do not accept. For example, people who do not belong to a religious sect would most likely not want to involuntarily support that sect and people who oppose abortion would not want state funds supporting abortion.

What might seem to be an obvious counter is that there are people who do not want their money to go to public schools because of their values. So, if it is accepted that public money can go to public schools, it should also be allowed to flow into value-based charter schools. After all, if state money should be denied to anything that some people oppose based on their values, almost all public funding would cease.

The reply to this is that public schools are controlled by the public, typically through elected officials. As such, people do have a choice regarding the content and experiences offered by public schools. While people will not always get what they want, they do have a role in the process. Public money is thus being spent in accord with what the public wants, as determined by this process. That people do not always get what they want is how democracy works.

 In contrast, the public does not have comparable choice when it comes to value-based charter schools. They are, by their very nature, outside of the public education system. This is not to say that there should not be such value-based schools, just that they should be in the realm of private choice rather than public funding.

To use a road analogy, imagine that Billy believes that it is offensive in the eyes of God for men and women to drive on the same roads and he does not want his children to see such blasphemy. Billy has every right to stay off the public roads and every right to start his own private road system on his property. However, he does not have the right to expect public road money to be diverted to his private road system so that he can exercise his choice.

Billy could, however, argue that as a citizen he is entitled to his share of the public road money. Since he is not using the public roads, the state should send him that share so that he might fund his private roads. He could get others to join him and pool these funds, thus creating his value-based charter roads. If confronted by the objection that the public should not fund his values, Billy could counter by arguing that road choice should not be a luxury that must be purchased. Rather, it is an entitlement that the state is obligated to provide.

This points to a key part of the matter about public funding for things like public roads and public education: are citizens entitled to access to the public systems or are they entitled to the monetary value of that access, which they should be free to use elsewhere? My intuition is that citizens are entitled to access to the public system rather than to a cash payout from the state. Citizens can elect to forgo such access, but this does not entitle them to a check from the state. As a citizen, I have the right to use the public roads and send any children I might have to public schools. However, I am not entitled to public money to fund roads or schools that match my values just because I do not like the public system. As a citizen, I have the right to try to change the public system and that is how democratic public systems are supposed to work. As such, while the ideological choice argument is appealing, it is not compelling.

3 thoughts on “Charter Schools III: Choice & Values

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes:

<a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>