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Choosing Equality: School Choice, the Constitution, and Civil Society.

Choosing Equality: School Choice, the Constitution, and Civil Society. By Joseph P. Viteritti. Washington, DC: Brookings, 1999. 284p. $29.95.

The contours of the school choice debate are by now familiar to public policy students, but a lack of agreement about the appropriate weights to be given to the variables affecting the subject continues to splinter their ranks. On the surface, there appears to be a consensus that the latest scores on standardized tests will resolve the uncertainty as to which type of education, public or private, is most effective, but a dip into the literature quickly dispels any such hope. The only thing clear is that nonpublic schools, even with one financial hand tied behind them, do not perform any more poorly than public ones. Consequently, Viteritti wisely gives short shrift to the byzantine methodological distinctions made by researchers and, instead, focuses on the normative questions.

Unlike most writers who favor school choice (e.g., Milton Friedman, Capitalism and Freedom, 1962) because it will contribute to an increased dimension of individual freedom, Viteritti justifies it because its outcome will increase equality among classes and races. In a comment reminiscent of John Rawls (A Theory of Justice, 1971), Viteritti argues that "education policy must be designed to benefit the most disadvantaged members of society--those who are under-served by the current system" (p. 211). He does not sharply distinguish between equality of opportunity and equality of result because he expects the former to evolve straightforwardly into the latter. If lower income families in the inner cities can choose to attend a school other than their local public one, then they will have a greater probability of attaining the same quality education as middle-class children. This would help fulfill Brown v. Board of Education's desire that all races receive not just an education, but a decent one.

Viteritti focuses on three particular issues in the school choice debate: whether lower income parents are competent to choose among schools, whether aid to religious schools is constitutionally permissible, and whether school choice can contribute to greater equality in America. He quickly dispatches the first issue by recounting the experiences with school choice (both public and private) in Harlem, Milwaukee, Cleveland, and several other cities. In all of them, despite onerous legal restrictions imposed by the state, substantial numbers of low-income parents did make a conscious decision to opt for a charter, magnet, or private school. Of course, most simply stayed in the local public school, either because they were satisfied with it or, perhaps, because they lacked the initiative to leave. In either case, experience has disproved the charge that low-income parents are incapable of distinguishing among schools or are unconcerned with the education of their children.

The constitutional question is more complex because it involves both federal and state constitutions and because the Supreme Court has unnecessarily complicated the issue. Viteritti rightly zeroes in on Everson v. Board of Education as the culprit that distorted the legal and social history of religion in the United States and introduced thirty years of textual incoherence into the law of church-state relations. By defining religion to include both "religion and non-religion," the Court left itself open to the charge that when it required that government aid must support a secular (i.e., nonreligious) purpose it was promoting a secularist religion over sectarian religion. Beginning in the 1970s, the Court has taken a more accommodationist position, but it has done so more on public policy grounds rather than on constitutional principle, thus resting the law on the current political orientation of its members.

An important contribution to the church-state question is Viteritti's analysis of the stringent state "Blaine amendments." He does a public service in describing their anti-Catholic origins, direct and indirect, and points out that if the Court were logical, it would strike these down because they violate free exercise of religion by reason of their unconstitutional intent. To see the import of his reasoning, one need only compare the Court's decisions to strike down laws intended to discriminate against racial minorities with those intended to discriminate against religious minorities.

The third issue in the school choice debate, and the one that most interests Viteritti, is the opportunity it offers low-income pupils to participate effectively in America's dedication to providing a decent education for all. Observing America's commitment to freedom of choice in so many facets of life, Viteritti finds it anomalous that the core government institution--education--is the least pluralistic and the least likely to acknowledge the importance of religion in people's lives. This is even more the case with regard to racial minorities, because black churches have historically played such a crucial role in unifying their members and offering leadership for social advancement. As he observes, "the church is a special source of strength in poor communities" (p. 208). For these groups, an education devoid of a proper concern for their religious heritage and respect for their religious values and teachings will not provide these children with the sense of empowerment necessary for alleviating their political inequality. Thus, Viteritti draws together the elements of democratic freedom of choice, religious instruction, and social (and spiritual) capital to justify offering a plurality of educational options to the poor.

An argument for equal government funding for poor children to attend any kind of accredited school--public, charter, magnet, private, religious--has much to be said for it, and Viteritti deals effectively with the most frequently raised objections. Nevertheless, his philosophical commitment to equality does give rise to some misgiving. Education in America has ideally been assumed to be directed toward the individual student, not racial, social, or income groups. Critics of school choice often object to it because "the rich" might receive a government subsidy if they opt for a private school. Despite the fact that most private school pupils come from middle- and lower-middle-class families, Viteritti is inclined to accept this form of class analysis. Instead of offering a justification for increasing freedom for all parents, he would restrict it to the currently poor and, presumably, would take it away from those who manage to work their way into higher income levels. Thus, Viteritti's argument for school choice will still result in a certain amount of exclusiveness and bureaucratic entanglement, as the state must determine each year who is and who is not still poor enough to qualify for school choice. Because Milton Friedman avoids this rather distasteful prospect by including all parents in a policy of school choice, he provides a much more compelling intellectual foundation for creating a nation of thriving educational communities.

Jerome J. Hanus, American University
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Title Annotation:Review
Author:Hanus, Jerome J.
Publication:American Political Science Review
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Mar 1, 2001
Words:1101
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