My favorite definition of justice in society’s institutions like public schools comes from an ethicist, J. Philip Wogaman, who frames his definition in the theology of Christianity. His definition could as well be contextualized in any of the world’s major religions: “Justice is the community’s guarantee of the conditions necessary for everybody to be a participant in the common life of society. Ultimately that notion has theological roots. If we are, finally, brothers and sisters through the providence of God, then it is unjust to treat people as though they did not belong. And it is just to structure institutions and laws in such a way that communal life is enhanced and individuals are provided full opportunity for participation.” (Christian Perspectives on Politics, pp. 216-217. Emphasis in the original).
In a public speech a few years ago, I heard the Rev. Jesse Jackson formulate the concept of justice in much the same way: “There are those who would make the case for a race to the top for those who can run, but ‘lift from the bottom’ is the moral imperative because it includes everybody.”
In both of these definitions, justice is defined as society’s responsibility for helping those who struggle. Promoters of school choice, on the other hand, assign that responsibility to the family. They defend parents’ right to choose. Believing that no other institution should overstep the rights of the family, supporters of school choice regularly privilege the institution of family over any public institution.
There are concerns and assumptions here, of course. The most obvious concern is whether it is society’s right to protect children from child abuse in the family, but that is not our subject today. What about school choice? What are the assumptions being made about education by promoters of school choice? The first assumption is that all children have parents who have the capacity to choose and who are prepared to make the choice. Capacity, of course, is more complicated than just the financial means, which school choice promoters promise in the form of a tuition voucher. Capacity to choose also must include accurate information about the choice and all of its implications. Then there is also the issue of family stability. Does the family have a stable place to live, for example, and do the parents have the time and emotional health to evaluate all the options, make the choice, and ensure that the child can navigate the route to the new school. School choice is a competition that rewards well informed parents with sufficient social capital and the energy and health to pursue choices.
But society bears some responsibility, doesn’t it, for the children whose parents may not have more informaton than the charter school advertisement on the bus or subway—for parents who may not be able to evaluate whether the choices protect their children’s rights—-for parents who suffer from psychiatric illness? What about children in the foster care system? What about homeless children whose families are likely to suffer from frequent housing displacement?
School systems employ staff who consider the needs of such children and to try to design programs for them. And through transparent, democratic governance of public schools, it is intended that the public can undertake to protect the rights of the children—rights that private companies with boards meeting in private cannot be required to protect. Programs that serve children with complex needs are likely to be imperfect because the children they are designed to serve each bring their own challenges. Trying to provide for such children with qualified staff is expensive. In our system of public schools, we have collectively undertaken that responsibility and we must continually strive to do a better job.
Here are some recent examples from the press of instances when the provision of public education has proven essential to vulnerable children.
Early in April, Dana Goldstein writing for the NY Times, profiled a mother, Tamiko Walker, who sought a McKay special education voucher in Florida for her child who had been diagnosed with a disability: “Only after her son, who has a speech and language disability, got a scholarship from the John M. McKay voucher program in Florida did she learn that he had forfeited most of his rights. ‘Once you take those McKay funds and you go to a private school, you’re no longer covered under IDEA—and I don’t understand why,’ Ms. Walker said.” Goldstein continues: “Federal law requires public school districts to assess the needs of special-education students enrolled in private schools. But districts are not obligated to provide those children with the same services they would receive in a public setting—even if a child’s private school tuition is taxpayer funded through a voucher. Private schools that participate in McKay are not required to demonstrate that they use any type of specialized curriculum to meet disabled children’s needs… The state affidavit that parents sign in order to receive a McKay scholarship, for example, says nothing about forfeiting IDEA rights and services. It also does not explain that parents are responsible for any additional fees a private school may charge on top of a voucher, which can range from $5,000 to $23,000. The Florida Department of Education website provides other materials with more detail on the legal implications of participating in McKay, but the documents are difficult to find and decipher… Many McKay recipients, it appears, do eventually end up back in the public school system. The average length of time in the program is 3.6 years….”
A second example of the need for a public system of education is Noel Anaya’s extraordinary story of her life in foster care beginning when she was a year old and removed, along with her siblings, from her parents’ care: “For most of our lives, we have been separated from one another, bouncing among different foster families, group homes and shelters, working with a constantly revolving cast of social workers, lawyers and case managers.” Her foster care placements were in the San Francisco Bay area, Michigan, Idaho, and back to a shelter in Los Gatos, California. While Anaya describes the social workers and case managers, the public schools she attended remain unmentioned and in the background, but it’s clear that wherever she was placed, she was accepted into the public school that, like all public schools, was required to accept and serve her. We know this because she earned a high school diploma despite her life of serial disruption. And graduating from high school in California, she discovered she could access continuing public support: “I was lucky to have a caring social worker and a foster mom who pushed me to sign up for community college courses…. I was also lucky to live in California, where foster kids aren’t forced out of the system when they turn 18. California is one of 23 states, along with the District of Columbia, that accept federal dollars to extend support until age 21…. Another program for former foster kids set me up with college counselors who helped me plan out my education and get an additional stipend.” Ms. Anaya is on a path to earn a four year college degree. What’s may not occur to us as we read this extraordinary story is that an education system based on parental choice would clearly not have met Anaya’s needs.
The final example of the necessary role of public schools is in the challenge of homelessness in New York City, as profiled this week by Elizabeth Harris for the NY Times. Harris simply describes the scope of the problem: “The number of New York City public school students living in homeless shelters has increased in each of the last five years, reaching nearly 33,000 in the 2015-2016 school year, the city’s Independent Budget Office said in a report on Monday. That is 4,000 more students than at any point during the previous academic year, an increase of 15 percent.” Harris quotes Toya Holness, who describes the huge school district’s efforts to support homeless children: “Students in shelter are among our most vulnerable populations, and with the renewed funding of $10.3 million, we are hiring more social workers through the Bridging the Gap initiative, expanding Afterschool Reading Club, providing admissions supports to improve participation rates, and offering more school-based health services.” Harris adds: “Early last year, the city started offering yellow bus services to any student in Kindergarten through sixth grade who was living in the shelter system. The city said it now provided this busing to more than 750 schools.” Although Harris doesn’t even consider school vouchers or privatization—the expansion of parental choice—it is obvious in what she writes that in New York City, parental choice would entirely fail to address the massive needs of families lacking affordable, stable housing. The expansion of yellow bus service is intended to help children stay in their original public school without increasing each child’s disruption when the family may move again and again.
Betsy DeVos, our new U.S. Secretary of Education, relentlessly promotes the rights of parents to make educational choices for their children. Insisting that the public shouldn’t tread on parents’ rights, DeVos focuses insistently on individuals’ right to choose. All doctrines of individualism, however, are philosophically grounded in competition. And in the domain of children’s education, the winners of the race are always the children with the most able and stable parents. Public school districts, on the other hand, are premised on the idea that society will do its best to ensure justice for all—“the community’s guarantee of the conditions necessary for everybody to be a participant in the common life of society.” After all, “‘Lift from the bottom’ is the moral imperative because it includes everybody.” By providing a system of public schools, society itself makes a commitment to do the lifting.