The last hundred years have witnessed a great struggle between state control and more libertarian forms of social ordering. Now that socialism—the hard-edged way of state control—has been largely discredited, a softer edged way—government control over primary and secondary education—is perhaps the most important fault line in this battle.
Thus, it is very welcome news that in Hart v. State the North Carolina Supreme Court last week upheld a school voucher program. The plan would provide $4,200 to parents with income at 133 percent or below the poverty line to send their children to a private school of their choice. The case turned on the state rather than the federal constitution, because happily the Supreme Court has already upheld school vouchers against an Establishment Clause challenge.
I am not an expert in North Carolina constitutional law, but one argument in particular interested me. The dissenters in the case contended that the voucher program did not serve only public purposes, because the private schools did not have to comply with government standards to assure that students “would participate and compete in society” by receiving a sound education. The legislation did require that schools receiving vouchers require attendance, meet certain health and safety standards, and provide periodic standardized testing. But these requirements were not enough for the dissent.
What was remarkable in my view was that the dissenters dismissed the capacity of parental choice to promote education accountability and indeed excellence. Unlike the public school system, a voucher program allows parents to choose in an educational marketplace what schools their children will attend. The dissent conceded that, “it may be true” that “parents will not send their children to schools that do not provide a solid education,” but nevertheless baldy stated that marketplace standards cannot show that the voucher program is justified by its public purposes.
Why ever not? Unless the dissenters are willing to dispute the value of parental choice, which they do not, the legislature certainly is within its rights in claiming that parents can likely choose the school that will best serve their own children’s needs. Indeed, given that parents are in no way required to take up the vouchers offered, they can still choose to send their children to government schools if they believe they are better for their children.
The dissent in the North Carolina voucher case is a paradigm example of progressivism’s rejection of a civic order generated by mediating institutions like families and private schools in favor of a top down social order dominated by government. But given that North Carolina judges need to run for reelection, they cannot openly say that they do not trust parents to make wise decisions for their children. Nor can they proclaim the real fear behind much of the opposition to school choice—that private schools will fail to inculcate the kind of progressive values flowing from the bureaucrats and unions which often capture the operation of government schools.
Vouchers for education advance a far more spontaneous order than direct government control of schools. The North Carolina decision is thus a great victory for liberty. May it embolden voucher proponents in other states.