Article 26 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights on education is beautiful.
Yet, I groaned when I got to this line: “Parents have a prior right to choose the kind of education that shall be given to their children.”
“Choice” is a buzzword that has been co-opted by a particular political strategy for education and has caused a lot of problems for public education. But if we use our power to choose for good, we can live up to these human rights ideals.
We need to understand the American context of school choice today.
Choice has been heralded over the past couple of decades as an ideal that will solve all of our educational challenges in America.
It sounds noble on the surface: Don’t let kids’ educational success be dictated by their ZIP codes. But the truth is that “choice” policies are not always about providing an alternative to low-performing schools.
Choice has deep roots in the response to school desegregation and is still driving the demand for choice today.
The school marketplace is saturated with choices. We can homeschool or we can pay for private school. Some states provide vouchers for private schools. Charter schools seem to be popping up at a faster rate than Starbucks.
Many public districts see this demand for choice and have risen to the occasion. They provide choice in the form of dual language academies, STEM schools, arts magnets schools and even career-focused high schools, such as health and medical studies or agriculture.
And don’t forget, the good old traditional neighborhood public school is there too.
We have relegated the public good of education to the marketplace. We have been told the more choices there are, the more schools will have to compete, and the better they will be.
But taking a closer look at the competition can be revelatory.
Take charter schools, for example. Currently, they are the most popular form of choice.
They are popular with education reformers because they are largely unregulated. They are popular with philanthropists because they are easy to control.
They are popular with corporations because they are profitable. They are popular with Democrats because they don’t violate religious liberty like vouchers do.
They are popular with parents because they are told they are “public schools,” free of cost (except they never are) and are tailor-made to appeal to certain demographics (white families).
But their unregulated nature means they make a lot of promises they can’t deliver, and their marketing tells stories that don’t turn out to be true.
Our attachment to choice needs to be checked. We need to rethink the way we make choices about our children’s educational path before our kids even start school.
After all, parents are the ultimate consumer in this market-based model. And parents are shopping when their children are just babies.
We are told to move into the “right” neighborhoods to make sure our children will be able to attend the “best” schools, and that’s not something we stop to even think about. But even this form of choice has its roots in something that should make Christians uncomfortable.
What is it that makes one public school better than another or more appropriate for our own children? How do we weigh our parental obligation against our Christian obligation?
My faith teaches me that every child is a child of God. My experience as a mother teaches me that all parents want the best for their children.
God wants opportunities for a full and abundant life for all children, which includes the blessing of education. And as a Christian, I want that too, not just for my own three kids.
Luke 12:48 reminds us of our responsibility to use our choices for the good of others and not to hoard resources for ourselves: “From everyone to whom much has been given, much will be required; and from the one to whom much has been entrusted, even more will be demanded.”
I would add: From everyone who has the privilege of choices, the hard choice will be expected.
Just because we are given choices doesn’t mean we should choose something else. We are guilty of assuming the grass is always greener. Education profiteers know this and are capitalizing on us.
By making “choice” the normalized model, we put public schools at the bottom of the list as a last resort. It’s a mentality that says, “If we can’t get our kids into something better, only then would we choose public school.”
What I value about my children’s education in public schools is more than their reading levels or accelerated math programs (which, by the way, are excellent).
What I value are the same things reflected in the U.N.’s Declaration of Human Rights. “Education shall be directed to the full development of the human personality and to the strengthening of respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms.”
Whatever you do with your “prior right to choose,” make sure you use that power of choice toward advancing the very things that make education a human right.
We can nullify the politicization of choice if we stand up for those values and choose to participate in the fullness of life that public education offers for all God’s children.
Editor’s note: This article is part of a series this week for Human Rights Day (Dec. 10). The previous articles in the series are:
No Room for Debate: Trans People Have Rights | Junia Joplin
Do We Observe Human Rights or Practice Hypocrisy? | Wendell Griffen
Nationality: Your Right to Belong in This World | Brent Hamoud
Governments Won’t Do Right Thing for Vulnerable | Pam Strickland
4 Ways You Can Help with Migrant Crisis | Sue Smith
Human Rights: They’re Not Just for ‘Us’ | Scott Stearman
Unions Offer Protection to Hard-Working People | Chris Sanders
Associate director of Pastors for Texas Children. She lives in San Antonio, Texas, and is married to Garrett who pastors Woodland Baptist Church. They have three elementary aged daughters in public school.