School Choice and Social Justice

School Choice and Social Justice

School Choice and Social Justice

School Choice and Social Justice


School choice, the leading educational reform proposal in the English-speaking world today, evokes extreme responses-its defenders present it as the saviour; its opponents as the death knell of a fair educational system. Disagreement and vagueness about what constitutes social justice ineducation muddies the debate. The author provides a new theory of justice for education, arguing that justice requires that all children have a real opportunity to become autonomous persons, and that the state use a criterion of educational equality for deploying educational resources. Throughsystematic presentation of empirical evidence, the author argues that existing schemes do not fare well against the criterion of social justice, yet this need not impugn school choice. Brighouse offers a school choice proposal that could implement social justice and explains why other essentialeducational reforms can be compatible with choice.


Although, as we saw in Chapter 2 , some enthusiasm for school choice has come from the political left, most of the enthusiasm in recent years has been from the right. The response of the left has largely been negative. In this chapter we shall review three arguments against school choice which have been offered by, usually left-wing, political theorists, all of which are, as we shall see, unsuccessful. They are all, also, arguments with considerable currency: certainly in the US context they are very commonly heard, in one form or another, from activist opponents of school choice. Although each of the arguments fails, reviewing them is extremely informative, because it turns out that two of the arguments rely on very common mistakes about what matters of principle are relevant to the design of education policy. One of the surprising conclusions of this chapter is that neither value of democracy nor that of a common or public good should have much to do with the design of educational institutions.

The Argument from Commodification

One charge frequently made against school choice is that it results in the commodification of education, by making its distribution subject to, albeit constrained, market forces. Education, the charge goes, is one of those goods—like personal and sexual relationships, like children, and some other goods—which by its nature should not be a commodity. Alex Molnar puts it as follows:

Over time, market values have eroded and debased the humane values of democratic civil society. Listen closely to the language that already fills discussions about school reform. It is the language of commerce applied to human relationships. Children are defined as 'future customers', 'future workers' and 'future taxpayers' . . . When the logic of the market is allowed to dominate society, relationships are inevitably turned into commodities to be bought or sold. (Molnar, Alex, Giving Kids The Business, 184.)

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