Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.

Pluralism, Education Policy, and the Reality of Unintended Consequences

Kevin R. den Dulk


Pluralism, Education Policy, and the Reality of Unintended Consequences

Kevin R. den Dulk

September 15, 2014

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? 

Consider a plausible scenario. We can easily imagine that one type of school choice policy – the growing commitment of states to public charters – would draw students away from independent schools, most of which are faith-based. There could be multiple reasons for that dynamic, but the strongest is simple economics: In most settings, charter schools are free and private schools are not. A potential effect of the resulting enrollment decline is a death spiral for tuition-based schools. And fewer of those kinds of schools means fewer distinctive choices for parents.  Indeed, for many parents these alternatives are an imperative of a worldview, religious or otherwise.  At a societal level, independent schools have a rich history in public life – especially in economically disadvantaged urban areas – and work by Cardus and Calvin College researchers suggests they play an important role in fostering democratic citizenship. 

It’s important to note that I’m not suggesting here that charter schools have actually had this effect. My point is that Christians haven’t taken seriously that they might. A literature search picks up little from Christian think tanks or policy analysts about enrollment effects of various school choice policies (other social scientists have given the question some attention, but with very tentative and limited results).

This scarce attention is understandable. After all, policy effects are often unanticipated precisely because they are unknown. Education policy must take into account a bewildering array of forces and factors; we can’t possibly forecast all its effects.  However, sometimes effects are unanticipated not because they are unknowable, but because we didn’t bother to look for them. 

Sleuthing for unintended consequences is not merely a technical exercise that any good analyst, Christian or otherwise, could accomplish by constructing an empirical model and crunching some numbers. Answers to the technical questions – e.g., Is there a statistical relationship between the presence of charters and declining enrollments at faith-based schools, controlling for other factors? – can have profound moral implications (Does school choice policy undermine its pluralist aspirations?) Christians have a stake in both articulating and answering those questions. To fail to do so implies that we don’t care when intended goals clash with unintended effects.

To this end, a research team associated with the Henry Institute is currently working on a project to examine the enrollment effects of school choice policy. This is challenging work, and it may raise critical questions about the link between pluralism and choice. But as Paul Henry insisted years ago, the appropriate Christian response to this policy work is humility, not paralysis or indifference. 

- Kevin R. den Dulk is the Paul B. Henry Chair in Political Science at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan. 


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