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On Public Support For Religious Schools

by Walter Feinberg - 2000

I explore arguments about the fairness of the present arrangement barring public support for religious instruction in separate schools. I show that the arrangement is based on a consensus formed during the 1920’s which established a strong conceptual separation between public and private where religious schooling is relegated to the private sphere.

I ask whether this conceptual separation forged in the 1920s is still viable. I explore different proposed reasons for altering this conception of the private/public divide when it comes to supporting religious schools, and show that there are reasons, both from the point of view of religion and from the point of view of the state, to be cautious about a radical change in the present configuration of support. One implication of this argument is that fairness is not a matter of public support for separate religious schools. Fairness depends on the quality of public education available for poor children. I conclude by suggesting that the terms for arguing the issue of public support for religious schools needs to be reoriented to take into account the future autonomy interests of the child


The issue of public support for religious education, which I examine in this paper, is a part of a larger question about the authority of parents to influence the religious instruction of their children both within and beyond traditional public schools. It involves the question of the limitations, if any, that should be placed on this authority, and whether state refusal to support religious education of the parent’s choice may be viewed as an illegitimate denial of parents’ rights to guide their children’s upbringing.

Public support of religious education can come in different forms, such as direct grants to religious schools for instructional purposes; vouchers, which parents may use to support their children in religious as well as private schools; tax credits, which will enable parents to deduct tuition to religious schools on their income tax; or changes within public education that would accommodate the religious beliefs of parents. Such changes range from proposals to bring back school-sponsored prayer, to posting some version of the Ten Commandments in the school, to including instruction in religious education in the public schools. In this paper I focus on the question of public support for separate religious schools and will leave the issue of religious instruction within the public schools for another time. The paper is not an attempt to decide once and for all whether public support for separate religious schools has merit, it is rather to orient the arguments for ad against such support, and, by implication, to change the character of the debate.

Here I examine two arguments for public support for separate religious schools. The first is that parents who send their children to religious schools are penalized because not only must they pay tuition for their own children, but they must also pay taxes to support public schools. The second is that public schools have a monopoly on education, and this monopoly, and the lack of competition it entails, is the reason for the poor state of education. Moreover, some religious educators argue that this monopoly places fiscal stress on religious schools, forcing them into financial hardship. In order to break the monopoly, parents should be allowed, with the support of public funds, to send their children to any viable school, including religious schools.

From the point of view of some devout parents of limited means and their defenders this situation presents an intolerable double bind. On the one hand they may be unable to afford the money for parochial school tuition or the time for home schooling while on the other hand they will have limited influence over the education of their children within the public schools. Many feel that this situation is unfair and wish to change it, either by advancing public funds for religious schools or by granting individual parents more authority over the content of their children’s education within the public schools.

In this paper I explore the fairness of the present arrangement. I show that it is based on a consensus formed during the 1920s that established a strong conceptual separation between public and private spheres where, for the purposes of education, religion is relegated to the private sphere. I ask whether this conceptual separation is still viable. I explore different pro-posed reasons for altering this conception of the private-public divide when it comes to supporting religious schools, and show that there are reasons, both from the point of view of religion and from the point of view of the state, to be cautious about a radical change in the present configuration of support. One implication of this argument is that fairness is not a matter of public support for separate religious schools. Fairness depends on the quality of public education available for poor children.

Although I am critical of present justifications for extending public sup-port to religious schools, I want to leave the question open whether, perhaps under somewhat different arrangements, say with more state supervision and greater public control, some religious schools might merit public funds. I do not know the answer to this question, but I believe it is an important question to consider. In the following, however, I show why the present arguments are seriously flawed and would likely do considerable damage to both public and religious education in this country.


The foundation of the existing but shaky consensus was forged in the 1920s when the U.S. Supreme Court in Pierce v. Society of Sisters over-turned an Oregon law that required children to attend public school and prohibited attendance at full-time parochial schools. Although acceptance of the legitimacy of private and parochial schools has been a part of the prevailing consensus ever since Pierce, there has been considerable controversy about government support for parochial schools. For much of the 1800s and all of the last century the Court has interpreted the Establishment Clause of the Constitution as prohibiting direct support for instruction in religious or parochial schools. Thus while the courts have allowed children to attend parochial as well as private schools they have been reluctant to provide parents or schools with the enabling means to sup-port instruction in those schools. In effect this has meant either that such schools have been available only to those who can afford to spend their own private wealth on their children’s education or else that such schools have had to subsidize the education of poorer children through tuition waivers and scholarships. Parents who send their children to religious schools must also pay taxes in order to contribute to the running of public schools. In return religious schools receive a tax-exempt status that allows tuition costs to be reduced.

There are a number of reasons given for the present consensus. The exit provision can be defended as essential to the exercise of conscience in a free and effective manner. Freedom of conscience must, within the limits allowed by children’s interest in their future autonomy, allow parents considerable latitude in the way they educate their children, and a right to remove their children from public, state-supported education and place them in religious schools is consistent with this freedom. Pierce allows for this exit and thus accommodates parents who find public school to be too great a burden on a child’s religious heritage. However, it provides an incentive in the form of free “tuition” for parents to keep their children in the public school. Those who wish to make public funds available for education in religious schools believe this incentive is wrong.

The consensus also allows a benefit to the public schools. It provides them considerable freedom to pursue a secular curriculum without constant pressure from religious groups who, seeing no alternative to public education, would be more vigorous in pursuing their aims within the public schools.


Since Pierce there have been a few concessions made to children in religious schools, often related to arguments that can show an overriding benefit to the child. While indirect support is an area of considerable litigation and confusion, these concessions have, until recently, stopped short of providing any support for instructional programs. However, recent legislation in the state of Florida, and a recent State Supreme Court decision in Wisconsin (Jackson v. Benson) upholding legislation that allowed parents in Milwaukee to receive state vouchers to cover expenses in private and religious schools, have begun to challenge the accommodation that Pierce initiated. In support of this erosion, it is argued that the fact that children will be supported to attend public, state schools, but not private or religious ones inhibits the free exercise of conscience for those without the means to overcome the barrier tuition places in front of them. The response often involves an appeal to the Establishment Clause of the Constitution and to the phrase, reportedly first articulated by Roger Williams and later Jefferson, “the wall of separation” between church and state. The response is intended to indicate the will of the founders to bar public support of religious expression regardless of income level. Nevertheless, although few disputants challenge the Establishment Clause, there is considerable debate over how high the wall of separation need be.

Some of those wishing to lower the wall question whether the Establishment Clause is intended to bar support to any religiously sponsored activity or simply to practices of worship that constitute the core function of religion. In certain Court rulings some government aid has been allowed for certain nonreligious functions performed by religious orders. At various points the Court has allowed public support of busing to religious schools and for purchasing nonreligious textbooks while it has attempted to navigate a rather treacherous distinction between aid to children attending religious schools and aid to the schools themselves or the religious instruction therein.


The most vocal challenge to the prevailing consensus arises from those who want to break what they call the “government monopoly” over education and provide funding that would enable parents to send their children to religious schools. This challenge is especially strong among advocates of vouchers, some of whom, in their desire to enhance parental choice— which they believe will raise both efficiency and quality standards —would allow religious schools to constitute one of the options. There is a less vocal challenge coming from the other direction that either would abolish most religious schools as we now know them, or place much stronger restrictions on their operation.

Legal scholars disagree about whether a recent willingness of the Court to support certain activities of religious orders is a change or whether it is really a return to a time before the Grant administration when opposition to public support for religious education began to gain ascendancy, partly as a reaction to Catholic schools by the Protestant mainstream. Before this time it was more common for governments to lend support to religious, and especially to Protestant, oriented public schools. Some scholars argue that the barrier between public and private schools was built largely in response to anti-Catholic sentiment that developed in the wake of the Know-Nothing party and fear of immigration. Thus according to this view the wall of separation has often been one of intolerance, and the more lenient tendencies of recent courts are really a return to a previous relationship between government and religious schools (although the earlier relationship disfavored Catholic schools while advancing Protestant practices). The effect of the argument is to lend credibility to a growing leniency on the part of state and federal courts regarding government aid to religious education.


Somewhat ironically, these conceptual and historical arguments have been bolstered by the growing market ideology that classifies education as a consumer good best delivered through parents’ choice of their children’s schools. Market critics of the present system view public schools as a government monopoly and object to the double burden—tuition and taxes— that parents who choose to sent their children to private school have to pay.

These critics believe that many of the same financial benefits that are extended to what they call government schools should also be extended to private and religious ones and they are especially concerned that poorer parents who could not otherwise afford tuition be provided with vouchers to send their children to these schools. Some also point out that some democratic countries (e.g., the Netherlands) do support religious schools, suggesting that there is no necessary inconsistency between a religious education and a commitment to democracy. The effect of the argument entails a loosening of the strong conceptual distinction between public and religious education that was implied in Pierce.

In addition to aid to religious education, the line between religious and state interest arises in other, related areas. For example, there is the question of how far and under what circumstance state educational interests can intrude on religious educational interests. The courts have had difficulty holding to a consistent line on these cases. In some rulings, such as the famous flag saluting cases, or the arm band rulings during the Vietnam war, the Supreme Court has required the state to back off, asserting either the liberty interests of the parents or the free speech interest of the students as reason for rejecting school-imposed rules and rituals. In other cases, such as Mozert where parents wanted their children excused from certain classes because of their religious beliefs, lower courts have found that the larger community’s interest in orderly schools is sufficient to over-ride religious objections to school programs, and the ruling has been allowed to stand by the higher court.


There are four relevant principles at stake in the question of public support for religious schools and they are not always compatible. First, there is the Establishment Clause of the Constitution that has been interpreted as prohibiting state support for religious (read devotional) instruction. Second, there is the right that parents have to guide their children’s education. (This interest is interpreted by critics of the prevailing consensus as entailing a right to enabling means.) Third, there is the free speech interest of the child. Fourth, there is the future liberty interest of the child, or the interest that the child has in his or her own future autonomy and in his or her capacity to choose. While this is not an explicit constitutional principle, it would seem to be a necessary condition for the future exercise of any right.

Admittedly, the potential conflict between these principles is great and the lines are often enormously difficult to draw. For example, if a child does an oral report in a public school on “What Christ Means to Me,” is she exerting her first amendment rights of free speech or, because a teacher required an oral report, is the school supporting a specific religious point of view? If schools prohibit such a report are they inhibiting free speech or upholding the separation between church and state? Do the same issues arise if the only Muslim student in a class writes an essay “What Islam Means to Me”? What if a teacher assigns an essay asking students to express and defend their deepest beliefs? Should she add “but not religious beliefs”?

The conception of “the public” contained in the Pierce ruling relegates religious education to the private sphere, assuming an inseparable divide between public and private. This divide allows private schools to do things that would likely be disallowed in public schools (and has even been used to uphold the right of parents to send their children to schools that pro-mote racial segregation). However, this freedom comes at a price: the denial of public support for a function that is compelled by the state. Thus in Pierce the wall of separation allows private and religious schools a good deal of freedom in determining their individual programs, but does not provide them public means for carrying out a state-mandated function, while the public schools are provided tax dollars for exercising this function but are subject to the constraints of democratic and bureaucratic accountability.

Since Pierce, notions of both public and private have been constituted in terms of an exchange between freedom from government control and an (implicit) parental waiver of the right of one’s child to government support for his or her education. It is important to note that this distinction is not based on anything that public or religious schools do, but on how they are sponsored and to whom they are accountable. If a school were sponsored by and accountable to a religious organization but had exactly the same curriculum as the public schools and a student body and teaching staff that reflected the demographic characteristics of the community at large, it would still be placed on the private side of the wall.

This view of the public is considerably different from that implicit in either the market view of reform or in some nonmarket arguments for support of religious schools. The advocates of educational markets reject the strong conceptual separation between public and private because they largely reject the exchange between freedom and control. Government interest is seen as just a cover for the entrenched interests of teachers and administrators, and tax support for “government” schools alone is seen simply as one way to maintain them as the favored interest. The so-called public school is thus simply a name for channeling funds to support these interests over others. If there is a public, according to this view, it does not reside in one institution, but rather in the free decisions that individuals make regarding their different and distinct interests. The real public is the result of agents acting freely in a market in which their interests can be met. In this view private and public are interpenetrable and the government’s proper role is to maintain the conditions for meaningful choice. The public is really just the sum of private choices plus whatever mechanisms are required to maintain them.

This conception of public should be distinguished from another emergent version where it arises from the play of different interests that work to balance themselves out creating a tolerable level of stability. Under this view religious expression needs to be allowed, not because of any particular commitment to a market ideology but because, like any other bottled-up expression, it can serve as a source for destabilizing the delicate balance of the political system. Under this Madisonian version the public realm consists of the natural balance of different interests groups, and allowing religious expression is just a way to assure that different viewpoints have the means to be articulated. Given this view, religious schools should be allowed, but the conditions under which they might be supported by public funds would be governed by concerns of stability. If supporting religious schools were to improve political and social stability, then this would be taken as an argument for support. However, there is no intrinsic reason here to support religious groups and concerns about promoting irreconcilable factions have often served as an argument against support for religious education.


There are three arguments that are entailed in the market view I want to address. The first is that because public education constitutes a government monopoly on education, public education is inefficient. Because public schools are inefficient monopolies, they serve to disempower consumers and weaken education. Markets are the remedy that monopoly requires, and choice programs that include private and religious schools are the remedy that the monopoly over public education requires. The second argument is that poorer children are disadvantaged by this monopoly, and that this requires state subsidies to poorer parents to send their children to schools of their choice, including religious schools. The third argument is that the state should be neutral concerning the individual’s choice between religion and nonreligion. When the state develops incentives that advance nonreligion it violates this neutrality. The remedy is to provide individuals with the means to choose without weighting the incentives on either the side of religion or nonreligion. These three arguments taken together constitute the most prominent case for public support for religious schools.



At the foundation of this case is the belief that government schools constitute a monopoly over education and that providing parents with vouchers that could be used for religious schools as well as others introduces healthy competition into the system. Moreover, by allowing those vouchers to be cashed in by religious and private schools as well as government schools, the problem of support to religious education is overcome. The state then is not supporting religious schools per se, but rather the parents’ right to choose.

The appeal of this argument is obvious. If accurate it would allow both the liberty interest of the parent and the interest in maintaining the Establishment Clause to be advanced. The argument rests on the view that the government (translate, public school teachers and administrators) represents one interest among many and that public schools as presently defined should not be provided any special advantage. This view is problematic on a number of counts.

First, while it is true that public schools enjoy a certain advantage over religious ones, namely, they do not need to charge tuition, religious schools enjoy a different kind of advantage. They can create an environment that is consistent with the parents’ own belief system and can control children’s experience in ways that are likely to lead to children’s adoption of that system.

It is only because public education enjoys more patrons than do religious schools that the market advocate can credibly conclude that free tuition is a greater advantage than controlling a child’s belief system. However, this conclusion is the result of hindsight. If the numbers worked the other way, then it would appear that the religious schools had the advantage, and that public schools were not monopolies at all. In such cases, since religious schools would be chosen because they support the very same beliefs espoused by the parent, a strong argument could be made that they curtail children’s future ability to choose among different conceptions of good, for example, thus violating their future liberty interests.

To judge whether an enterprise holds a monopoly by how many customers it has rests on a problematic standard. One could just as soon argue that, given their great ideological advantage, religious schools have not lowered their prices sufficiently to challenge the competition in any serious way. If this view were accepted, then to allow support to religious schools would actually be to provide them with a market advantage. It would provide them with the benefit of free tuition, compatibility with parent’s values, however broad or narrow, and maximum control over their student’s belief system. If we stay with the market metaphor (and as we will see, it is a metaphor) it would be somewhat like subsidizing drivers who really wanted to drive a Lexus but otherwise would have settled for a Toyota.

Granted, whether this analogy is convincing depends a lot on whether anything significant is at stake in enabling parents to exercise maximum control over a child’s experience. However, here market advocates concede a lot when they allow that vouchers should be given for education. The classical market does not work that way. In that market people are allowed to shop for the kind of commodity they feel they need; not for the kind of commodity that someone else tells them they need. Dollars are not earmarked for shoes only. If I want to walk around with holes in my shoes so that I can purchase expensive wine, the market allows me to do so.

Educational marketeers are not challenging compulsory education, they are only challenging its mode of delivery. Certainly, this is appropriate given the complexity of modern society and the likelihood that children could never lead successful lives without schooling. Yet by singling out schooling and making it a special market there is the recognition that there are important educational issues that are not the parents’ alone to decide.

Friedman attempts to justify this constrained market by arguing that society has a stake in education because some level of education is required for social stability. Whatever one may think of this argument, however, it is not clear how it justifies public funds to support the educational choices of individual parents. Nor is it clear that support for education into separate and exclusive systems of devotion would go far in advancing stability. What it does do, however, is reinforce the view that more is at stake in education than serving the interests that parents have in reproducing their own values.


Once this recognition is granted, then the narrow conception of public emerging from market choices alone must be seen as insufficient. The idea of public now also includes those who hold that education should be marked off as a special and compulsory market segment, and this group is wider than those who happen to be consumers in that segment. This public will only be satisfied if religious schools can be accountable for those functions for which education was made compulsory. One of those factors will involve the renewal of a critical-minded public. This requires, both on the part of the existing and the emerging publics, an understanding of the social and political conditions a democratic society needs for its own renewal. And it requires citizens who are able to advance interests that extend beyond their local group. Once this conception of the public is understood, then the thin public advanced by the market view will be seen as inadequate, because it need not attend to this extended interest.

The private choices of parents alone acting on behalf of their individual child is not sufficient to satisfy the educational conditions that renewal requires. It is important, of course, that parents serve to advocate on their child’s behalf, but parents are not responsible to the larger democratic constituency. This fact alone renders the very concept of a “government monopoly” misleading because it fails to address the character of accountability. Public schools are engaged in shaping and reshaping the citizen base of the nation. They are responsible in a way that parents are not in passing on the basic outlooks, values, and skills required to function in a self-forming democratic community, and democracy requires that the agents of this reproduction ultimately be accountable to a representative citizen body.

Granted, many religious schools do a good job in developing these values and some public schools do a less than adequate one. However, performance is only part of the issue. Accountability is the other part. To speak of a government monopoly over schools is like speaking of a government monopoly over Congress. It makes little sense as long as the account-ability to the larger public is adequate. If it is not adequate, the solution is not just to hand funds to private parties to make our laws or to run our schools. It is to improve the level of accountability.

It is also significant in this country that different schools have different local flavors and that districts compete for teachers and administrators. Granted, there are unifying pressures across districts. However, many of these come from the private sector such as textbook manufacturers, or from business and federal government initiatives that would likely be (or, as with desegregation, gender and disability issues, arguably should be) felt in most religious schools. To speak of schools as a government monopoly also fails to acknowledge the relative autonomy that teachers have once they close their door and begin to teach.

There are many political and sociological reasons to allow parents to opt out of the obligation to send children to a public school, the most important being the recognition of the right of conscience and the possibility of the tyranny of the majority over a minority. This right also allows that private groups may help to provide enabling means to do so, but it does not require other citizens to support an education that is inconsistent with their best understanding of the vocational, political, and intellectual requirements for future citizens, and that is not accountable to their elected officials.

Parents who send their children to free public schools may be taking advantage of an incentive, but they need not be seen as enjoying a privilege. Rather they are engaging in one of the critical responsibilities of a democracy, providing one’s children with the intellectual resources to see beyond the horizons set by immediate family, community, and religious circumstances and to take on the attachments and concerns of the larger national community. Often a good education puts some parental values and many parental prejudices at risk. Religious schools may develop these attachments as well. However, they are not obliged to do so and hence need not be negatively evaluated when they fail to do so. Public schools should be evaluated in these terms.

True, one of the marks of tyranny is the attempt by the larger community to force those parents whose conscience leads them in other directions to send their children to a public school. Yet those who leave public schools should not think that they do so without cost to anyone else. Parents who send their children to religious schools take advantage of the lower tuition that a tax-exempt status allows. And, while some argue that the state should be able to aid nonreligious church activities, the argument is just as well turned around to argue that governments need not waive property taxes on nondevotional religious sites such as school buildings because to do so adds to the burden of other taxpayers. Viewed in this way the privilege is not to those who send their children to participate in the larger citizen-making community but rather to those who are given an extra tax incentive to take advantage of their right to exit the public schools and place their children in private or religious schools where they need not participate in the larger citizen-shaping consensus. The benefit is also to other believers who provide support for such schools at a discount due to tax advantages they receive. Thus their charitable dollar goes further because other citizens are willing to provide such a discount. The force of this argument is even greater in those cases in which parents are given tax breaks for avoiding the consensus-forming process and sending their children to private or religious schools.

While a liberal society must make room for parents who, for reasons of conscience, do wish to remove their children from the citizen-making consensus of the public school, it must also try to assure that extraneous incentives do not overwhelm those parents otherwise inclined to send children to public schools. These incentives may be negative ones such as drugs and violence, or they may be the positive ones that arise when the resources of private schools and public tax policies combine to enable the opportunities private schools provide to far outstrip those available through public ones.

Proponents of vouchers to religious schools recently have made much of the fact that wealthier parents enjoy the right of exit within the system because they are able to move from a less to a more desirable school system. They thus believe that this is an argument for enabling poorer parents to have the same right and also to be able to exercise that right through both private and religious schools. However, the fact that wealthy parents can choose to move to another district is not an argument for enabling others to opt out of the citizen-making consensus formation. Rather it is either an argument for compensatory taxes to raise the quality of the less desirable districts or it is an argument for decoupling residence and school district. These would have the same desirable effect, to reduce incentives that are not born of conscience for parents to remove their children from the citizen-making consensus of the public schools.


Of course the above argument is irrelevant if either the market or the Madisonian views, taken in their extreme forms, are correct. Under the market view, the public does not enter into anything like a citizen-forming consensus. Rather, parents act as consumers and, out of the sum of their choices, new citizens emerge. Under the Madisonian alternative, narrowly construed, there are simply perspectives that need to be expressed, but there are no special insights or skills that are unique to citizenship, and thus there is no privileged perspective that needs to be stamped as that of a citizen. Given this equality of perspective, there is no reason to privilege one kind of school over another. Indeed, some will argue that it is dangerous to act as if there were such a perspective for it is precisely this assumption that lead to the anti–parochial school movement that had to be corrected by Pierce.

The problem with this view is that it is inconsistent with the very idea of democracy in which citizenship is actually an office, one that participates in the selection of leaders, and that requires the skills needed to evaluate those who govern. These skills are many, but at their foundation is a willingness to critically reflect on different kinds of authority, religious, intellectual, and governing, from a perspective that includes the good of the society at large. Part of this good includes the idea that other factions must also be allowed to flourish as well as one’s own. This is a good that public education must be responsible for teaching. It is also a good that private and religious schools may choose to teach as well, but unlike public schools, the decision is theirs to make.


To suggest that there are outlooks, skills, and concepts that democracy does and must privilege is not to say that public schools, as they presently are constituted, are the only educational institutions that do so. Nor is it to say that such schools always do so successfully. It is simply to suggest that there is a system of accountability in place that, when working correctly, enables public inspection and evaluation of the process through which these skills and outlooks are developed. Certainly, these skills and outlooks are not the only important things that children learn in school. And indeed, some religious schools may do a better job in teaching solidarity and certain neglected virtues, such as selflessness; some religious schools may even do a better job than some public schools in teaching the virtues and skills of citizenship. It is simply to say that public schools must remain accountable to a body that is constituted as citizens rather than as congregations.


The question that needs to be asked about public support for religious schools is whether the wall of separation between church and state education needs to be as high as was implied by Pierce, or whether there are reasons to lower it. The answer depends on understanding that public education has a special function in American society in giving shape to a public consensus about the character of the future citizenry. Granted, the consensus is always fluid and never so precise that it can be summed up by a list of traits that we all agree on. Rather public schools provide the arena in which present citizens can carry on a discussion about the way in which a future citizenry should be shaped.

The arena may highlight different needs at one time or another as the shape of the consensus is altered. Nevertheless, the fact that public schools are available means that education is a matter that concerns us all. If we fail to recognize the uniqueness of this function, then we are likely to get caught up in misplaced metaphors and to simply assume that one interest and one form of schooling is on a par with another. Thus a metaphor like “government monopoly,” a metaphor inappropriately taken from commerce and applied to education, takes charge of our thinking and the critical role of public education in maintaining democratic forms of life is rendered invisible. To better understand how education can serve democracy is to challenge metaphors that reduce democracy to consumer choice or interest-group politics. This understanding allows us to better orient ourselves with regard to the current dispute and to place the burden back where it belongs, on the actual performance of public schools with regard to democratic understandings and on the accountability of those religious schools that might wish public funding for maintaining democratic under-standings. Once we have oriented ourselves we may decide that the wall must be maintained as it is or that it is too high or too low but we will do so keeping in mind the need to maintain a public consensus-forming process regarding the character of citizenship education.

There is, of course, a monopoly that matters educationally and that is the monopoly that a set of ideas has over a child’s choices. Imagine that for one brief moment a preschool child is able to glimpse all of the values and beliefs that exist as reasonable alternatives to those of his or her parents and that she might be exposed to during her education. Then, imagine as soon as her parents select a school to match their values that vision disappears. However, just before it vanishes from view the child realizes that as soon as the choice is made all other possibilities will be erased from memory. From the point of view of the child if his or her parents choose a school aiming to reproduce their own values by limiting her exposure to others, then the school together with the child’s parents holds a monopoly on the process that will shape that child’s world view. Whether it be a public, a religious, or a private school, this is the kind of monopoly we should be concerned about.

Appreciation to King Alexander, Nick Burbules, Jason Odeshoo, Larry Parker, Alan Phillips, Tyll van Geel, and Maria Seferian for reading earlier versions of this work.


There are, of course other arguments, but these two are designed to appeal beyond the religious community and to be persuasive to those who are neutral regarding religion. Because both arguments appeal to the preference given to public education they appeal to those who find private as well as religious schools attractive alternatives to public ones. There is one argument that is specific to religious education that I do not address and that is the claim that there is a causal relationship between a religious education and a morally correct person. This claim has some obvious problems. It is vague (what are we to count as moral behavior?), and given this vagueness and the many different flavors of religious education it is difficult to establish empirically. Catholic schools seem to do a good job of emphasizing wider communal needs. See Anthony S. Bryk, Valerie E. Lee, Peter B. Holland, Catholic schools and the common good (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1993). But others religious schools provide their students with an education that narrows their vision, and promotes intolerance of other religions. See Alan Peshkin, God’s choice: The total world of a fundamentalist Christian school (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1986) and James G. Dwyer, Religious schools v. children’s rights (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1998).

I am indebted to King Alexander for this observation.

Pierce v. Society of Sisters, 268 U.S. 510 (1925).

Cochran v. Louisiana State Board of Education, 281 U.S. 370 (1930).

Everson v. Board of Education of Ewing Township, 330 U.S. 1 (1947).

Board of Education v. Allen, 392 U.S. 236 (1968).

Joseph P. Viteritti, “Blaine’s wake: School choice, the first amendment, and state constitutional law,” Harvard Journal of Law and Public Policy 21, no. 3 (1998). (through Lexis/Nexis)

Paul E. Peterson and Bryan C. Hassel (ed.), Learning from school choice (Washington, DC: Brookings, 1998).

John E. Chubb and Terry M. Moe, Politics, markets and America’s schools (Washington, DC: Brookings Institute, 1990),p.55.

James S. Liebman, “Voice, not choice,” Yale Law Review, 101 (1991): 259–314.

James G. Dwyer, Religious schools v. children’s rights (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1998).

Joseph P. Viteritti, “Blaine’s wake.”


I say “ironically” because few religions would see their education as just a consumer good.

Chubb and Moe, Politics, markets and America’s schools.

Charles L. Glenn, Choice of schools in six nations (Washington: U.S. Government, 1989), pp. 47–81.

West Virginia Board of Education v. Barnette, 319 U.S. 624 (1943).

Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District , 393 U.S. 503 (1969).

Mozert v. Hawkins County Board of Education, 827 F. 2d 1058, 1067 (6th Cir. 1987), cert. denied, 484 U.S. 1066 (1988).

Joel Feinberg, Freedom and fulfillment (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1992), pp. 76–97.

Ibid., p. 23.

Runyon v. McCrary, 427 U.S. 160, 176 (1976).

I emphasize right because such a waiver does not necessarily mean such support is unconditional on other grounds.

William L. Galston, “Two conceptions of liberalism,” Ethics, 105 (April 1995): 516–534.

For an argument along these lines see Dwyer’s criticism of religious education.

Milton Friedman, Capitalism and freedom (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1962).

Eamonn Callan, Creating citizens: Political education and liberal democracy (Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 1997). Walter Feinberg, Common schools/uncommon identities: National unity and cultural difference (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1998).

Bryk, et al., Catholic schools and the common good.

Granted, there are many challenges to this autonomy in the form of standardized tests and increased accountability. However, with a few exceptions, markets are actually likely to intensify accountability to test scores as the primary currency for evaluating market-driven schools.

The Illinois legislature has passed such a tax. It benefits people who can afford to pay $2,500 or more in tuition by providing a $500 tax deduction.

Liebman, Voice not choice.

For a useful critique of this metaphor see Jeffrey R. Henig, Rethinking school choice: Limits of the market metaphor (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1994).

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 102 Number 4, 2000, p. 841-856
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 10506, Date Accessed: 12/2/2021 11:53:30 PM

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About the Author
  • Walter Feinberg
    University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
    E-mail Author
    Walter Feinberg, a professor of Philosophy of Education at the University of Illinois in Urbana, was born on August 22, 1937 in Boston, Massachusetts. Feinberg’s scholarship focuses on the relationship between democracy, work and education. His books include: Common Schools/Uncommon Identities: National Unity and Cultural Difference, 1998; On Higher Ground: Education and the Case for Affirmative Action, 1998; Japan and the Quest for a New American Identity: Work and Education in a Multicultural Age, 1993. Feinberg has been President of the American Educational Studies Association and The Philosophy of Education Society and has served as the Benton Scholar at the University of Chicago.
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