The silence of the shepherd

Many of our more public minds oppose aid to families who want, but can’t afford, a non-government school. For working families and the poor, the guru’s motto appears to be “public school only.” He endorses our ancien regime of schooling, which eliminates the parent from any role in the process; as such minds see it, the State rescues half of America’s children from their parents’ mistakes by conscripting them each morning to government custody. I will call these pundits “shepherds”; they applaud as the lambs of the hoi polloi get herded into that safer fold of the State.

It takes guts not common to the Shepherd to argue plainly that the well-off parent is up to the job, but not the rest of you. Better just to stand by as the State properly does for worker and the poor what better-fed families do for their own children - i.e., choose.
It takes guts not common to the Shepherd to argue plainly that the well-off parent is up to the job, but not the rest of you. Better just to stand by as the State properly does for worker and the poor what better-fed families do for their own children – i.e., choose.

Oddly enough these same Good Shepherds – so often wordy – seldom comment on the wisdom and justice of family choice when exercised by those other parents who can afford it. Of course, such comfortable folk can actually assert a constitutional authority over the child; and it would be a steep climb – legally and politically – to disentitle every parent, as Oregon attempted nearly a century ago. Still, one might expect our contemporary civic sentinels to notice and regret the damage to children and society wrought daily by these imperfect parents making choices. The honest dogmatists of Oregon were candid and public about their fear of feckless parents both rich and poor; today’s enemies of choice remain oddly reserved and ambiguous regarding the sovereignty of our more prosperous mamas and papas.

Such restraint suggests profound ambivalence. Often we watch the very prototype of the Shepherd – the public school teacher and union leader – execute their own child’s exodus to a more favored district residence or even to a private school. Such thoroughbred parents on occasion even manage a different postal address for the child, one where in fact he is seldom to be found. (Less popular school districts now pay bounties to detectives to assure that resident parents do not divert illegally the per-pupil state subsidy for their child. Parents caught cheating get prosecuted.)

Is this silence of the the Shepherds a shroud for their own embrace of choice by the well-off? As these gurus run with the hare and hunt with hounds, they remind us of that familiar foreign critic of America’s sins – the one who turns handsprings to secure his own visa.

Is the Shepherd simply a hypocrite? Often yes; but often no. In this short piece it would be hazardous to critique the possible excuses of the Shepherd – coherent and otherwise – for his apparent approval of society’s systematic bullying of the poor parent while indulging the tastes of the rich. In my experience – apart from union intimidation – the most common explanation is the simple blindness of the middle class and the academy to the reality of the coercion.

Educated suburbanites seem blissfully unaware of their own role in this systematic segregation of the have-nots, one that is executed by the affluent family’s choice of residence. In conversation these folks are all for what they call “public” schools; that’s where good citizens like us choose to go. Such schools are the democratic ideal; are they not? It is ever-so-hard for such well intending bobos to grasp the reality that they and their pseudo-public schools are the heart of the civic problem.

In the end such blindness has, I think, a deeper related rationale that has, for obvious reasons, been left obscure – even (or especially) in the mind of the Shepherd himself. In the end the only justification for disempowering the lower classes is a certain specific empirical hypothesis: Compared to the randomly assigned state school, the choices that would be made by such parents are, on average, relatively inferior and dangerous to their own child and to civic order. On average the random assignment to a public school is, for such children and for society, our best hope. Parental competence to choose, as the Shepherd sees it, is a direct function of wealth. Thus it is that the Shepherd (in good conscience?) laments the isolated fate of the inner-city child – but continues to approve it in practice.

And the Shepherd thus falls silent. Putting such an argument in plain language is not easy for the mind of the professed egalitarian. If these conscripted families were in fact relatively unskilled at making such life-impacting decisions, what would follow is not a call for silence, but for honest debate about the probable effects upon our society of alternative policies – should it be choice or subjection? How does each tactic affect the family, the society, and the child? Will the parents’ experience of responsibility destroy what’s left of the family or help restore what’s been lost? Will parental choice make children of the inner-city more irresponsible or unveil to them the gift of self-control? Will test scores go up, down – or neither? It’s time we talk about this.

Avatar photo

BY John E. Coons

John E. Coons is a professor of law, emeritus, University of California at Berkeley, and author with Stephen D. Sugarman of "Private Wealth and Public Education" and "Education by Choice."