Teaching values in schools of choice – and maybe, regulating them

This brief essay is the fifth in a series describing forms of legislation available to any state that considers adopting vouchers for private school tuition. The previous essays focused upon rules governing admission to private schools, the dollar amount of the voucher, information required of participating schools, testing and disclosure of scores and related issues. These can be accessed here. My present subject is legislation that affects private school curriculum – with emphasis on rules that affect the teaching of virtue and civic values.

All states – sometimes with federal incentive – require the teaching in their public schools of what we can call “basics.” The education codes differ, but predictably include English, math, computers, and aspects of science that are not controversial. However, this relative uniformity diminishes with respect to value-laden subjects such as marriage, health, civics, history, sex and literature. Our media swarm with conflict over the values curriculum – what is required and what is forbidden – in public schools. And, quite apart from the statutory rules, what actually gets transmitted behind the classroom door of any public school can be a matter of mystery; it is sufficiently unpredictable that I have preferred to call it the “Bingo Curriculum.”

This gamble with the minds of children is, of course, another good reason to pity the fate of families whose relative poverty conscripts them to “free” schools of the state.

Private schools have been less burdened either by law or by complaint of those customers who, after all, have freely chosen them. State law does require such schools to address the secular basics, but generally in the broadest language; and they are left free – at the parent’s direction – to teach their own specific value systems and of course, religion. The private school can and does hire teachers who represent its distinctive vision of the good life. It does this in order to attract customers (parents) who share that view and who expect the school to help them pass it on to their child. The Waldorf, Montessori, Muslim, Catholic, Hebrew, and Lutheran school exist precisely for this purpose. The U.S. Supreme Court long ago recognized this distinctive power of parents – deriving outside secular law – to employ educators who transmit their own vision, which may well include basic ideas that are unavailable to the state.

But, if the state here lacks power, it does carry two kinds of responsibility. One is to protect the right of the child to a basic education; the other is to protect society from the risk of intellectual corruption that is always present in the adult-child relationship, including that of teacher-student. The state subsidy for the parent’s school choice thus will not be usable at schools that are either dysfunctional as basic educators or that consciously promote contempt for values foundational to civic order.

Once upon a time – in a book called “Making School Choice Work for All Families” – Stephen Sugarman and I offered model answers to both problems. To the issues of minimal academic standards, we proposed the following:


To redeem vouchers a participating school must meet those requirements of the Education Code which applied to private schools on the date of the adoption of this law.

The argument for keeping regulation status quo in this way can be reduced to this: If society already has a satisfactory regime for private schools, the parental subsidy that will now make such schools available to everyone is prima facie sufficient.

But we did proceed to suggest the following addition:

Forbidden Teaching:

No school which teaches the inferiority of or encourages hatred towards any person or group on the basis of race, ethnicity, color, national origin, religion, or gender shall be eligible to redeem scholarships.

It could be argued the second regulatory suggestion is unnecessary. Why introduce provocative notions that are politically risky? All I am sure of is the champions of school choice must decide the course best suited to the politics. We all live in an aggravated emotional civic context deeply infected by the day’s report of violence and hatred. In the midst of this comes the emergence of the Muslim school which – like it or not – will become a stalking horse of the teachers unions and their considerable audience. Let me be clear: the American Muslim schools are no different from any other. The ones I have known about are competent and civic minded. I would be content to treat them as the law has treated other private schools in respect of the ideological content.

The successful purveyance of anti-civic ideas has seemed to me more the specialty of the schools of the state with their captive audience of low-income families. Their institutionalized contempt for the authority and dignity of parents could not be clearer or more socially poisonous.

Still, at the stage of history, the American voter may well need some specific political gesture of the sort suggested in the second model above. Like similar anti-defamatory laws, it would probably get by the First Amendment. That conclusion is bolstered by the presence of the public subsidy. And such a rule might just serve positive ends within the world of private schools where, no doubt, the occasional anti-civic hate monger will surface. Yet I worry. The American Center would be grateful for your view.

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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."