June 1 marks an important anniversary in the fight for school choice.
On June 1, 1925, the Pierce decision of the U.S. Supreme Court declared parents “have the right, coupled with the high duty, to recognize and prepare” how their children will be educated. Still the law of the land, the 9-0 decision has never been challenged and is not likely to be.
Yet it is doubtful that one person in a thousand could identify the subject of the case if they were asked to do so. Not that it is totally forgotten: A Google search for “Pierce v. Society of Sisters” listed 3,210 sites. However, most are sources of limited circulation.
This lack of awareness is demonstrated by supporters of school choice, who argue parents should have the right to determine how their children are educated. This, as the Court made clear, is a right they already have. What too many families lack is the financial ability to exercise this right, whether by sending their children to an independent school, homeschooling, or, as millions do, by at least being able to afford living in the school district or attendance area of a school they wish their child to attend.
In brief, the battle over school choice is how to make it possible for low-income parents to exercise this civil right they already have.
Creating Wards of State
Many school choice opponents are more concerned with protecting their jobs and their special interests than with the education, welfare, and constitutional rights of the students. And there are those who sincerely believe government can do a better job of educating, or training, children than can parents. That idea has a long history.
Sparta, an ancient Greek city-state from 400-600 B.C., took all boys from their families at age 7 and placed them in state-run boarding schools. Parents had absolutely no part of that process. Spartan girls, as was true in most civilizations at the time and even since, were given no formal education.
One of the first proposals for an educational system in the new United States came from Benjamin Rush, a Philadelphian and a signer of the Declaration of Independence. He wrote, “Let our pupil be taught that he does not belong to himself, but that he is public property. Let him be taught to love his family, but let him be taught at the same time, that he must forsake them … when the welfare of his country requires.”
In 1834, the first actual statewide education plan, created in Pennsylvania, was largely the result of the efforts of Thaddeus Stevens, best known as the leader of the Congressional Radical Republicans at the end of the Civil War. He argued that “the rich and poor man’s sons [are all] deemed children of the same parent–the Commonwealth.”
Stripping Parents’ Rights
In the 1925 arguments before the Supreme Court in the Pierce case, the spokesman for the state of Oregon boldly stated, “As to minors, the state stands in the position of parents patriae, and may exercise unlimited supervision and control over their contracts, occupations and conduct, and the liberty and right of those who assume to deal with them.”
As governor of Arkansas, Bill Clinton promoted a number of educational reforms. When asked if the state knows better than the parents, he said yes.
During the debate over a school choice initiative in California, a Web site supporting the measure received a message saying, “I support government monopoly schools. Parents cannot be trusted. Liberty and choice are dangerous to society.” Perhaps that was sarcasm. Still, many believe this, whether they state it so explicitly or not.
Observing Freedom Day
Those who support parental rights in education should never forget June 1 as the anniversary of the Supreme Court’s declaration of parental independence. And why not go further?
There are countless national days, weeks, and/or months honoring this, that, or the other thing. Why not recognize June 1 of each year as Educational Freedom Day? Hundreds of such observations across the nation could regularly recognize and emphasize the essential constitutional principle upheld in the Pierce decision.
At the very least, all education entities–departments of education, school buildings, and collegiate and university schools of education–should have over their doors these words from the Pierce decision: “The Child Is Not the Mere Creature of the State.”
David W. Kirkpatrick ([email protected]) is a senior education fellow at the U.S. Freedom Foundation in Washington, D.C. This article, reprinted with permission, originally appeared in the April 6 edition of School Report.
For more information …
The full text of the U.S. Supreme Court’s June 1, 1925 decision in Pierce v. Society of Sisters is available through PolicyBot™, The Heartland Institute’s free online research database. Point your Web browser to http://www.heartland.org, click on the PolicyBot™ button, and search for document #19063.