Those who assert that public financial support for private schools is inconsistent with our nation’s educational history conveniently ignore our pluralist roots. Yet, this false historical assertion is central to their opposition to North Carolina’s Opportunity Scholarship Program (OSP) for low-income children, which allows parents to send their child to a private school of their choosing.
Progressives tell us our public schools are the only institutions that can instill democratic values, build a nation, and help assimilate millions of immigrants. It was true in the 1830s and 1840s, they say, and it is still true today.
Problem is, it wasn’t true in the 1830s and 1840s, and it isn’t true today.
In an amicus brief for an upcoming case before the United States Supreme Court, Professor Ashley Berner of Johns Hopkins University speaks to this point when she writes, “From the nation’s founding until the end of the 19th Century, cities and towns throughout the United States levied taxes for a plurality of schools — Catholic, Protestant (in various forms), and nonsectarian — as demography dictated.”
The fact is, prior to the current system of uniform public schools, our nation had a system that reflected the diverse religious and cultural heritage of the American people. North Carolina even aided private academies to help educate a growing population.
So, what changed? What turned history on its head?
As Berner notes, public schools were the response to worries over massive immigration to the United States in the 1840s. The new public schools were uniform, embraced national identity, and repudiated sectarianism. Public schools were intended to destroy educational pluralism and diminish or end public funding or support of religious and other forms of private education that had flourished in the United States for decades.
In other words, public schools aimed to turn education into a one-size-fits-all proposition.
Progressives also enshrine the principle of neutrality and use it to oppose Opportunity Scholarships. Is it possible, however, for any school to be truly neutral? What school doesn’t seek to instill certain values, ideas, and concepts over others? Today’s parent movement has revealed that schools and teachers have a point of view.
Education is an inherently normative process. We know that to be true. That truth spawned private and public schools, schools with different curricula, institutional distinctives, and instructional methods. This is not a bad thing. It’s simply reflective of the diversity of thought and of our cultural heritage.
In misreading history and educational progress, progressives have come to the wrong conclusion about choice in general and Opportunity Scholarships in particular.
As our Shaftesbury Society panel discussed this week, North Carolina should be applauded for empowering parents to educate their children as they see fit through the Opportunity Scholarship program (OSP). In upholding the program’s constitutionality in 2015, the North Carolina Supreme Court clearly did not view the dilemma as deciding for either public or private schools. The court held that the state constitution “does not prohibit the General Assembly from funding educational initiatives outside of that system [of uniform public schools].”
Put simply, the state legislature can fund the public schools and also encourage other private school options.
By funding Opportunity Scholarships, North Carolina empowers parents to decide how and where their child is educated. In doing so, the program gives children a chance at a better education and also affirms our cultural and religious heritage while defending the fundamental values of freedom and liberty.
Progressives have every right to continue to make a case against the program. However, as we celebrate National School Choice Week, let’s be intellectually honest and agree it’s well past time to dispense with an argument that’s at odds with our history and the values we hold dear as a people
Bob Luebke is senior fellow for Center for Effective Education at the John Locke Foundation.