Marshall Fritz is the founder of the Separation of School & State Alliance in Fresno, California (

After World War II, aborigines in New Guinea scraped clearings in the brush in hopes that planes would land and bring “cargo.” They’d seen U.S. forces do similar scrapings, and soon thereafter, great silver birds landed and disgorged “cargo,” some of which was left behind and was quite useful.

Of course, they were perpetually disappointed. No combination of width, length, slope, and decoration ever brought in a single silver bird because they didn’t know the real source of “cargo.” From their standpoint, however, they were doing reasonable things.

I used to push for tax-funded school vouchers. My logic was that since most times the private schools do better than the government (a.k.a. “public”) schools, why not use the tax funds to allow parents a choice? Like the New Guinean who had limited understanding of “cargo,” I had limited understanding of “private education.”

Let’s ask what is the real source of why private schools have better results overall than government schools? Is it the private ownership? Competition and the profit motive? Uniforms? Curriculum? Smaller class size? Prayers and Bible verses? Typically lower spending on teachers? Stricter discipline? Unity of worldview between parent and teacher? Charging tuition of their customers?

Of all of these, only the last gets us near the heart of the watermelon.

Unfortunately, like Cargo Cultists, most of the conservative and libertarian—and recently, “liberal”—proponents of tax-funded school vouchers have not figured out why private schools, on balance, outperform government schools.

So what does cause, or at least allow, private schools to have better students? Douglas Dewey, executive vice president of the Children’s Scholarship Fund, put it simply: home and private schooling use a better brand of parent.

Wealth No Indicator

By the way, my one-year experience as a teen in an expensive Swiss boarding school convinced me that wealth is not an indicator of good parenting, and my experience running a private school where 71 of 72 students received financial assistance showed me that poverty is not an indicator of weak parenting.

The Reverend E. Ray Moore, founder of Exodus 2000, and I worked up a thought experiment to help explain Dewey’s Dictum. Here it is:

  1. Come up with five or more indicators of “good parenting.” Our list includes: (1) getting married before you have children; (2) staying married; (3) giving children authoritative discipline; (4) earning a living, as opposed to living on welfare; (5) taking virtues seriously and working to transfer them to your children.

    Imagine a distribution of American parents measured on your indicators of good parenting. I suspect your estimates will probably look something like Ray’s and mine. We think just a few parents are excellent, the majority are merely good or weak, and more are bad parents than are excellent. Chart 1 attempts to picture this as a histogram.

    Chart 1: Moore/Fritz Estimate of Distribution of 1990s American Parents by Quality Level

  2. Now invent five measurements of “good children.” Our list included: (1) lack of arrests for drug use, theft, and assault; (2) diligently prepare themselves for adult status, as measured by getting good grades, staying in school, and getting a part-time job; (3) care about the world around them, as measured by how much of their income and time they volunteer to helping their fellow man compared to how much they spend in self-indulgent activities; (4) are happy and cheerful; (5) attend the church or temple of their or their parents’ choice and make sincere efforts to understand and live by its teachings.

    Next, estimate the percentage of children from each of the four quality levels of parenting that you think would measure up as “good or excellent children.” In other words, how many children of the bad parents are excellent children, how many of the weak parents, and so on. You can see our estimates in Chart 2.

    Chart 2: Moore/Fritz Estimate of Distribution of Good or Excellent Children from Each Group (each segment represents 5%)

  3. Finally, estimate the percentage of children in private schools that come from the four quality levels of parenting. If your guess is like ours, the vast majority come from the best parents, and practically none from the worst parents. See Chart 3.

    Chart 3: Moore/Fritz Estimate of Distribution of Quality Levels of Families with Children in Private Schools

This exercise illustrates Dewey’s Dictum that, by and large, private-school children come from better parents and are already better quality children. In other words, the main source of quality in private schooling is that they use better raw material. It’s not what’s in the school as much as what goes into the school.

The obvious next question is, how do the private schools get the better pupils? Let’s compare the school situation to Chinese restaurants.

Chinese restaurants take measures to filter out diners who want Mexican or other non-Chinese food: In designing their restaurant sign, they usually use a Chinese-sounding name. Sometimes they employ some Chinese characters and they almost always blatantly use the words “Chinese Food.” Because of this filtering out of most diners, rarely do customers complain about the lack of burritos on the menu.

School Filter

Back to our question: from the millions of parents who might like private schools, how do the private schoolmasters find the better ones and filter out the poorer ones? Can they use the Chinese restaurant approach and do it with a sign such as “Polite Children Lutheran School”?

We know better. We know the answer. They put certain demands on parents. Most of these schools expect payment in the form of tuition. Some allow parents and older children to work off part of the tuition. Some require parental involvement. For instance, the Hyde School in Bath, Maine, requires parents to attend several full weekend classes the first year that their child is in the school.

I know one New Yorker whose Jamaican doorman works two jobs in order to keep his children in a tuition-charging religious school. He sacrifices* his leisure time because his children’s education is more important to him.

* sac´ ri . fice: Surrender of some desirable thing in behalf of a higher object (Webster’s New Collegiate, 1949).

When parents sacrifice their time and money to put their children into private schools, the children see that education is important and they tend to get with the program.

Now, we’re getting to the subtle-but-important facts of life about vouchers: even if there were never any strings attached, they would destroy private education in three ways:

  1. For today’s parents who are sacrificing to send their children to private schools, that sacrifice would be reduced or even eliminated when government funding is available. Their children give up the paper route before breakfast and dad quits his second part-time job. They also stop cleaning the school on Saturday. And when their parents no longer live out their concern for education, the students’ eagerness for school is diminished.
  2. The schoolmasters can no longer differentiate between better and weaker parents. They must, in effect, take down the sign, “Tuition-paying parents only.” Children raised without a spirit of respect for others and their property will have equal access to their school. Children who are thugs and thieves, instead of being the rare exception, will form a quorum, just as they do today in many government schools. (The much-touted “Milwaukee system” even requires schools to accept all children and if oversubscribed, to choose by lottery.)
  3. Worst of all, government subsidy transforms good parents into poor parents. When today’s poor, even working two jobs, can’t afford to put all their children into private schools, they must depend on charity. They go to their pastor or a private scholarship program, which funnels money to them that some other person sacrificed to give. The advantage of charity over government funds is that the recipient keeps a sense of proportion, even gratefulness, when receiving volunteered money. With welfare, however, the recipient concludes he has a “right” to the money and often gets angry because he believes he deserves more. The subsidy transforms him into an angry parent. And when government funding ruins the attitude of the parent, the parent ruins the attitude of the child.

Do I speak from experience? I’ve run a school, and I had to close it because I accepted way too many children who were morally and emotionally messed up by their parents. In my written analysis of lessons learned at Pioneer Christian Academy, I confessed: “I apologize to all public school people who I accused of overstating the case of ‘children unprepared to learn.’”

Destructive Vouchers

Tax-financed vouchers will destroy the very private education that their proponents so much desire. The goose that is laying the golden eggs is the combination of voluntary parental sacrifice and the ability of schools to locate those parents. Converting this “sacrifice system” to a “welfare system” with school stamps, a.k.a. vouchers, will kill this goose. The aborigines of New Guinea learned about cargo. I learned about vouchers. So must we all.

If vouchers aren’t a solution to the school mess, what is? If government funding of parental duties weakens parents, would removal of government funding enable them to regain parenting strength? I think so. Parents who increase their sacrifice for their children subsequently work to become better parents. The evidence for this is particularly clear if you listen to a few dozen homeschooling parents describe the changes in their families once they began homeschooling. Fathers in particular “turn their hearts toward their children.”

The key to good education is good parenting, and the key to good parenting is for parents to reassume the burden of decision-making and financing their children’s education. The separation of school and state is a necessary step to improve parenting in America.