The Wrong Kind of School Choice
Religion & Liberty Online

The Wrong Kind of School Choice

Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime. Be incarnationally present with a man who can’t fish and you’ll teach him how to be “missional” while on an empty stomach.

This update on the ancient Chinese proverb isn’t entirely fair to my fellow Christians (mainly my fellow evangelicals) who believe that one of the most important ways we can help those in need is to being intimately, and often sacrificially, involved in underserved communities. But the maxim’s addendum does capture some of the well-meaning naiveté of missionally oriented activism.

Consider, for example, Christianity Today’s article on “The New School Choice Agenda”, a microtrend piece that explains “why Christians . . . are choosing to send their children to struggling public schools.” All of the people mentioned in the article appear to have a sincere desire to help those in need, so I feel conflicted about using them as an example. But I think the article helps to highlight the difference between activism that is personally fulfilling and policy advocacy that can actually effect change.

As the story notes,

Over the past decade, a group of mostly white, middle-class Christian couples have moved into Church Hill [in Richmond, Virginia], the community served by Chimborazo Elementary School. Unlike most families in Church Hill, these four couples have the financial and social capital to send their kids to private schools or to homeschool. Yet they have chosen otherwise. Building on the firm foundation Principal Burke has laid, they want to help restore a community struggling against generational poverty, and they believe a key component is sending their own children to the community’s public school.

Needless to say, this type of “school choice”—moving in a few white, middle-class Christian children into an impoverished minority public school—will do absolutely nothing to restore “a community struggling against generational poverty.” What it does, however, is reveal one of the perverse ironies of “educational choice.” Those of us in favor of broader educational choices often assume that parents will choose to maximize their child’s educational opportunities. The reality, though, is that if given a wide range of choices, some parents will choose to send their child to a particular school for reasons that have almost nothing to do with education. Some will choose a school based on the sports program or other extra-curricular activities. And some, like the parents mentioned in the CT article, will choose to send their children to a particular school in order to make a socio-theological statement:

Together the group decided to send their kids to Chimborazo. Corey Widmer asks, “What would it communicate to our neighbors if we said, ‘We’re moving into your neighborhood, but we don’t consider your schools and public institutions good enough for our families’?”

What it would communicate is what many of the longtime residents of the area probably already believe: the schools and public institutions aren’t good enough for any families.

Indeed, that seems to be the understanding shared by the new residents too. The CT article spends no time examining the effect the parent’s decision has had on the children (perhaps the impact is minimal since all of the children appear to be in kindergarten!) and instead chooses to focus on how the adults worked to fix their neighbor’s schools and public institutions.

Unfortunately, while the actions they take are important—volunteering, mentoring, choosing to be teachers—they are individualistic stopgap measures for long-term institutional problems.

When these families leave these neighborhoods (as they eventually will) they will leave behind a still-broken school system. While their willingness to move to the struggling communities is noble, what their neighbors need is to be empowered to help their own children. They need the ability to make their own educational choices—and that’s not something that can be accomplished by this “new school choice agenda.”

Joe Carter

Joe Carter is a Senior Editor at the Acton Institute. Joe also serves as an editor at the The Gospel Coalition, a communications specialist for the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, and as an adjunct professor of journalism at Patrick Henry College. He is the editor of the NIV Lifehacks Bible and co-author of How to Argue like Jesus: Learning Persuasion from History's Greatest Communicator (Crossway).