Pluralism, Education Policy, And The Reality Of Unintended Consequences

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  • Included in: Capital Commentary
  • Published: September 15, 2014
  • Publisher: The Center for Public Justice
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Before his untimely death in 1993, Paul Henry, Calvin College professor, member of Congress, and namesake of the Henry Institute, left his fellow Christians with a treasure of reflections on public life. (You can find a collection here.) Some of it is deeply theological; some is historical or biographical. But I am most intrigued by his clear-eyed wisdom about the nitty-gritty of policy making. His cautions, considered across the intervening twenty years, are often quite prescient. Even before the so-called culture wars had reached their full heat in the 1990s, he warned Christians against the triumphalist tendency to claim moral certainty in their policy goals and political strategies. He also insisted that Christians pay attention to a more subtle, but no less challenging, aspect of the policy-making process: the realities of unintended consequences. How should we respond when a policy addresses one problem yet creates another? I have been puzzling lately over this question in the domain of education policy. Many of us with a normative commitment to pluralism argue that the state should not only recognize a diversity of perspectives on education, but also support and fund those perspectives when they contribute to public purposes. The Center for Public Justice asserts forthrightly that this kind of equal treatment is a matter of public justice. This goal has led many citizens to advocate policies of “school choice” as a way to put principle into practice. Broadly construed, these policies enable parents to choose from an array of educational options for their children beyond direct assignment by the state. Some of the most prominent of these policy innovations have included public charter schools, which are currently authorized in forty-two states and the District of Columbia; public tuition grants (“vouchers”), which are available in ten states and the District of Columbia; and tuition tax credits, which are available in eleven states. But what if these policies, all driven by the same commitment to pluralism, and arguably resulting in key public benefits, undermine their animating purpose? What if the very policies designed to increase choice actually reduce the options available to parents?

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