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  • John Garen, PhD

Can school choice reduce social tension?

If you are like me, you are worried about the heavy tensions in social relations these days; among friends, co-workers, neighbors, family members, and on social media. It seems to have gone from bad to worse lately. The list of contentious subjects is a long one, including critical race theory, gender/transgender issues, election integrity, vaccination policy, regulation of energy, and Constitutional issues regarding religion, abortion, and 2nd Amendment rights. Just making this (partial) list puts me in a disheartened mood.


Can widespread and robust school choice help reduce these tensions? I don’t think it can eliminate them, but it should help lessen them. Allowing school choice removes one piece of contentiousness in society by allowing parents to educate their children in an environment that aligns with their value system.


Thus, in addition to the educational benefits school choice brings, it may relieve some of the current social discord.


Many of today’s disputes are thoroughly imbedded in the public schools. News reports have made this eminently clear regarding critical race theory and gender/transgender issues, but it’s also true for the other subjects. How history and civics are taught can affect students’ viewpoints on Constitutional issues. How science is taught affects whether students develop a desire for a deep and careful search for facts or whether they simply latch onto the latest quasi-scientific fad with its push to activism. Public school systems determine how each of these issues are dealt with, along with a host of other topics, such as: dress codes; availability of courses on sciences, languages, and the arts; emphasis on sports; support for various extracurriculars; school disciplinary methods, as well as other matters.


Whatever the outcome of these school-policy decisions, everyone in the public school district must abide by them . . . whether they agree with them or not. This is the nature of a public system -- one must conform even without your consent. When school policies deal with strongly held convictions of parents, those who disagree with the policies are likely to be deeply unhappy. And, for parents, it’s hard to get more central than how your kids are educated.


So what can you, as a parent, do if you are dissatisfied with the public school of your child? You might consider sending your children to a private school, but then you must pay twice; once for private tuition and again in taxes for the public system. Alternatively, you can fight the political fight of changing school policy by lobbying and cajoling school officials and rounding up other parents who agree. And you still might lose. But fundamentally, you are at odds with the school administration and also with other parents who disagree with your views on school policy.


If the only way to get a satisfactory education for your child is to fight with parents and school officials who have opposing views . . . then we have a recipe for social discord that can tear a community apart. Once upon a time, it was thought the public schools were a unifying influence in American society. If that ever was true, it is certainly not now.


In a robust system of school choice, where school funding “follows” the child to the school of the family’s choice, families can select the school that suits their values. There is no need to fight with school officials or other parents who have conflicting views to get what you want. Each gets the type of schooling that fits closer with what they desire, and it does so without contention.


Will this lower the temperature of our current social disharmony? I think it can help. Many conservative and liberty-oriented parents feel that public schools have moved far away from their values and preferred educational approach. If these parents are able to obtain the type of education for their kids that they desire, then one source of social friction is reduced. I presume the same is true of parents who have different ideological views. If each group accepts the others’ decisions, then there is some hope for better social relations. And I suspect that many parents of varying political stripes want schools where basic skills and factual discourse are key parts of the curriculum. So there may be more consensus on this than seems apparent.


I don’t think school choice will end discord, however. There remain many contentious public policy issues that will be decided by a political process. Thus, there are still plenty of sources for conflict. School choice can remove schooling from the list of divisive issues, though. That’s a step in the right direction and is an added benefit of enabling school choice.


Dr. John Garen is professor emeritus of economics at the University of Kentucky and is a policy advisor for Commonwealth Educational Opportunities.