Milwaukee’s school choice program shows that letting parents choose a moral ecology is how differing beliefs can coexist
By Patrick McIlheran
June 30, 2022 - Remember the recent Lutherans-vs.-Catholics riots in Milwaukee? Mobs of men with clubs, smashed windows, people not daring to cross into the other tribe’s territory? The shelling and rockets?
Of course you don’t, because it never happened. Yet something like it seemed to haunt a dissenting U. S. Supreme Court justice last week. Stephen Breyer suggested, on the losing side of a school choice case, that we should trade away religious liberty to avoid religious strife.
Breyer was dissenting in Carson v. Makin, in which a 6-3 majority ruled in favor of parents’ power to choose a school for their children. Maine guarantees an education for all, but in towns that can’t afford a high school, it lets parents take state aid to a private school of their choice. For decades, however, it has barred parents from choosing religious schools. The state said it cannot accept that some parents might use the money for an education that mentions God.
Chief Justice John Roberts reminded Maine that the Supreme Court has ruled repeatedly that states need not give a particular public benefit, but when they do, they can’t exclude religious institutions. “There is nothing neutral about Maine’s program,” he wrote. “The State pays tuition for certain students at private schools — so long as the schools are not religious. That is discrimination against religion.”
In arguments last fall, Justice Samuel Alito asked Maine’s advocate whether a church-related school with values matching those of polite liberal society could be accepted into the program. When Maine’s advocate suggested it could, Alito pointed out that unless Maine treated, say, a Unitarian school the same as a Catholic or Orthodox Jewish one, “I think you’ve got a problem.”
Boom. First Amendment, baby.
Breyer’s dissent, however, shows the underpinnings of leftist disaffection for the first liberty in that First Amendment. Breyer observes that America has “well over 100” religious denominations and concludes that “with greater religious diversity comes greater risk of religiously based strife.” Letting parents take state aid to a school that avoids any mention of God is OK, but if parents pick a school that takes religion seriously, it’s “a situation ripe for conflict.”
Is it? Is Breyer right to imagine that “Gangs of New York” is not drama but prophecy?
Good thing Wisconsin can offer lived experience, having for three decades given at least some parents the power to choose the school they think best, even if it teaches about eternal things.
And, no, Wisconsin’s school choice program has not led to strife.
There is strife in schools, certainly: Madison police, for instance, broke up a massive fight at a high school in September, and another in November, part of a worsening Madison school violence problem. But the school, Madison East, is not religious. Not unexpectedly, it is a traditional public school. Parents opting into Wisconsin’s school choice programs frequently cite safety as a reason, not what you’d expect if religion were the cause of strife.
There is no sign that Milwaukee has become Ulster or Beirut, despite three decades of school choice, a program in which about nine in 10 schools are religious. There are Catholic schools, Lutheran schools, Muslim schools, Jewish schools, Bible-waving schools and decidedly secular hippie schools. They teach markedly varying explanations about the nature of people and our duty to the creator.
Yet this diversity has not produced the social strife Breyer fears. History says we’re capable of it: “Gangs of New York” was based on real anti-Catholic riots not many years after mobs in Illinois sent Mormons fleeing to the Utah wilderness.
But school choice, having had three decades to incite Milwaukeeans to such interconfessional war, has produced no such outcome.
Indeed, the evidence is that religious school choice reduces trouble. Long-term studies following Milwaukee children who went to private religious schools under the choice program found that, as young adults, they’re much less likely to commit crimes. Young men who were in the choice program all the way through high school were 79% less likely to have committed a felony than their Milwaukee Public Schools counterparts. Later, as 25- to 28-year-olds, those who had been in a private school were 86% less likely to have been convicted of damaging property.
Being not-secular is key: “We really do think that the religious component is what’s forming the moral ecology at these schools,” as one of the researchers put it.
Breyer isn’t wrong that conflicting religious beliefs can lead to conflict-ridden societies. But Wisconsin shows that parental choice in education is what defuses conflicts.
Breyer writes that strife could arise when people feel the state “favors a particular religion over others.” The answer, he says, is “to avoid spending public money to support what is essentially the teaching and practice of religion.”
Yet the actual conflicts we see around schools — I mean not fights between kids but strife between parents and administrators and boards and lawyers — are arising because, increasingly, putatively secular public schools are spending public money to support the teaching and practice of what is essentially a religion.
Americans are realizing that government-run schools have a moral ecology of their own. There are lessons about sin, as when children are taught they’re guilty of “whiteness” and must confess their “privilege.” There is teaching about right behavior, namely that any love is good love so long as there’s consent and your uptight religious parents don’t find out about the drag show. There is a metaphysics, whereby children are taught that being female or male is not innate but an act of will.
These are not science but bent theology, enforced by force. When Alexandra Schweitzer called out the Oconomowoc Area School District for inappropriate books made available to young children — books such as “It’s Perfectly Normal,” which instructs tots that while some religions may object, “masturbating is perfectly normal” — she got a cease-and-desist from the school board, a threat fended off only by lawyers of the Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty. That pro-bono firm in May came to the defense of middle school boys in Kiel who were threatened with a sexual harassment investigation because they wouldn’t use “they” to refer to an individual classmate. It’s all of a piece with the feds flagging, as if terrorists, parents in Virginia who objected to schools’ chicanery on sex and race.
So yes, there’s conflict, and yes, it’s because of state endorsement of certain beliefs, even if the state won’t admit those beliefs act like a substitute religion. The strife doesn’t arise from parents taking state aid to schools teaching the morals that families choose. It comes from their having to use state aid only at schools controlled by a militant progressivism that’s trying to redefine society’s norms and that has no tolerance for other beliefs.
The way to defuse strife, then, is to let parents escape that re-norming and choose their preferred norms — including, if they want, schools embracing neopronouns and privilege walks. But only if that’s what they want.
This imposes nothing on other families, especially if we expand that choice to all, regardless of income. This is the pluralism that has worked so well in Wisconsin for three decades. This is how to live together in peace.
Patrick McIlheran is the Director of Policy at the Badger Institute. Permission to reprint is granted as long as the author and Badger Institute are properly cited.