The debate over school choice is an argument, ultimately, over authority and ownership of children. The basic biblical position is that children, ultimately, belong to the Lord who has given parents the right and responsibility to raise them and teach them.
The biblical view, however, is at odds with modern secularism which typically adopts a collectivist approach — “It takes a village to raise a child” or “Children belong to all of society.” This view contains a seriously flawed understanding of human nature and the nuclear family, and it has made the battle over education a spiritual one for the minds and hearts of the next generation.
The impetus to engineer society by restricting school choice is not new. Every totalitarian regime of the 20th century tried to do it, and it continues to now (to a lesser degree) in some of the least religious societies on earth.
It is not incidental that the most secular and atheistic societies restrict private, religious education. After all, the school system is the most effective means by which the state can indoctrinate each generation of children, and societies that creep toward totalitarianism will use public education as a means of preserving state power and suppressing dissent.
Christians living under these regimes quickly find their children becoming a political and spiritual battleground. For example, in 2006 Germany outlawed homeschooling, and in 2008 a German court sentenced two Christian parents to three months in prison for homeschooling their children. Not surprisingly, the general counsel for the Federal Republic of Germany in this case later commented that the government, “has a legitimate interest in countering the rise of parallel societies that are based on religion.
The challenge for Christians then is to support alternatives that give parents greater control over the content of their children’s education. Are there any biblical foundations for doing so?
The Bible says nothing explicitly about public school systems. We cannot look to a collection of verses to determine that public schools are good or evil. Instead, we need to use biblical wisdom and prudential considerations in determining the moral case for and against school choice.
So, what does the Bible say exactly?
Scripture places ultimate responsibility and authority to teach children in the hands of parents. This is evident from one of the earliest commands to Israel to teach their children the Law (Deut. 6:4-7). The details of this command — teach them “when you sit in your house, when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise” — all point to the household setting. It was through families and households that Israel’s children were to be taught.
There are also numerous examples in Proverbs that show teaching authority residing in fathers and mothers (Prov. 1:8; 4:1; 6:20; 13:1; 15:20; 23:22; 31:1). The New Testament as well contains many examples. Paul’s letters to the Ephesians and Colossians instruct children to “obey their parents in the Lord” and for fathers to “bring [children] up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord” (Eph. 6:1-4; cf. Col. 3:20-21).
Notice the complete absence of government authority over a child’s education. Parents, not the state, have ultimate authority over their children’s education.
If parents have the biblical authority and responsibility to teach their children, then they should also have the civil liberty to do so. This does not mean parents must choose one particular path. Rather, it means that parents are responsible to direct their child’s education in ways that are pleasing to God. That will look different in each family setting. Some parents may choose homeschool; others private or charter school; and others may choose public school. Each parent must have the freedom to decide what is best.
Critics of “school choice” argue the parents already have the freedom to choose. After all, private schools or homeschool are legal in the U.S., and the government simply provides a public option for everyone. The call for school choice, according to this line of reasoning, is a misnomer (at best) since parents already have the right to choose.
While this argument is technically correct, it contains several problems. Frist, it ignores the incredible tax burden placed on society to support public education, a tax burden that all of us share, including the poorest families. This tax burden makes alternative schooling less affordable.
Second, it ignores zoning restrictions that dictate which public school a student must attend. Those who cannot afford private education have little choice in where they attend school. This creates a vicious cycle where the worst schools in the worst neighborhoods can rely on a steady supply of students and have no economic incentives to improve their school.
Third, it fails to consider the enormous power of public school teachers’ unions that lobby against alternatives. In many states, the government requires all teachers to join the union and pay union dues, money which coincidently funnels back to politicians. The alliance of state and teachers unions creates an enormous, unfair advantage for public school systems.
Finally, the argument misses the larger point that public education for many decades has been on a steep decline in terms of quality, safety, and morality. This is largely why homeschool and private schools became so popular, and it is why the issue of school choice is so important. Considering all of these elements, it tortures the imagination to suppose that parents still have much freedom in the kind of education their children receive at the hands of the state.
Change is needed.
What would school choice look like as an alternative to the modern public education system? What could an ecosystem of charter schools, private schools, homeschool co-opts, and school vouchers do for our society?
First, it would restore parental control and influence over their children’s education, allowing parents to send their children to schools that align with their moral, religious, and political convictions. Second, it would create a competitive marketplace in the education sector. A competitive marketplace would dramatically improve the quality of education by forcing schools to compete for students and allowing better-quality schools to take their place. In the end, parents and children win.
Finally, it would restrict the state’s ability to indoctrinate children in radical ideologies. Many public schools have embraced LGBTQ ideology and are actively coercing students into accepting their “progressive” views about sex, gender, marriage, and family. Radical ideologies can only thrive when they enjoy no competition. A competitive ecosystem of school choice, while not perfect, would be a titanic step forward in dismantling the regime’s ideological campaign for the hearts of children.
Rest assured, a secular state increasingly at odds with biblical morality will compete ferociously for the minds and hearts of each generation. The unidirectional push toward centralized, collectivized public schooling should surprise no one, Christians especially. Decentralized education is the state’s worst nightmare because a decentralized system is impossible to control, and if the state cannot control education, it cannot control what children are taught to believe about the state. A competitive market in which school choice is the norm, not the exception, offers a viable path toward decentralization and toward greater control in the hands of parents as originally designed by God.
Follow Tim on Twitter! @TimYonts
Ready to dive deeper into the intersection of faith and policy? Head over to our Theology of Politics series page where we’ve published several long-form pieces that will help Christians navigate where their faith should direct them on political issues.