‘Never Give Up!’ – An Exclusive Interview With Mae and Martin Duggan

Published December 1, 2004

Little did Mae Duggan realize that a letter she wrote to the St. Louis Review in April 1959 would be the opening shot in a battle for school choice that she and her husband Martin would still be fighting some four-and-a-half decades later. Prompted by the letter, a group of reformers met in the Duggan home in St. Louis and created Citizens for Educational Freedom (CEF), the first organization established to promote educational freedom in the United States.

CEF’s efforts helped secure ground slowly but steadily, and over the years the school choice cause accumulated a series of favorable U.S. Supreme Court decisions on religious freedom. Those decisions culminated in the 2002 Zelman decision, where the High Court ruled it was constitutional for parents to choose a religious school for the publicly funded education of their child. Buttressed by these decisions, the past decade has seen substantial progress in implementing school voucher programs in Milwaukee, Cleveland, Florida, Colorado, and the District of Columbia.

The Duggans’ contributions to the school choice movement were recognized at a recent CEF 45th Anniversary celebration in Washington, DC hosted by The Heritage Foundation, Institute for Justice (IJ), and Educational Freedom Foundation. Event sponsors included The Milton & Rose D. Friedman Foundation, Alliance for School Choice, Cato Institute, Heartland Institute, and National Catholic Education Association.

At the October 5 event, IJ’s president and co-founder, Chip Mellor, hailed the Duggans as “trailblazers at a time when school choice was in the wilderness.” He noted they had adopted the principle of “educational choice for all children” before the emergence of widespread concerns about declining performance in the public schools. He also noted they knew a thing or two about “mobilizing the grassroots,” with their early use of rallies, demonstrations, fliers, and mass mailings.

In a congratulatory letter, Nobel Laureate Milton Friedman praised the Duggans for sticking to principle and never deviating from their support of parental freedom to choose how children are schooled. He recalled his pleasure in finding them as “allies in a common cause” in 1959.

“And now, 45 years later,” wrote Friedman, “supporters of educational choice have grown from a small band to a great host, parental choice is on the march, so far only in limited patches here and there, but under serious consideration almost everywhere.”

The Duggans spoke recently with School Reform News Managing Editor George Clowes.

Clowes: What got the school choice movement started 45 years ago?

Martin: Mae was, shall we say, exercised over the threat of some Catholic schools being closed. I’ll let her give you the facts.

Mae: I’m a graduate of a public schools teachers’ college in St. Louis, and I taught in both private and public schools until Martin and I were married. Then I stayed home to take care of our four little children.

What really activated me was an announcement in April 1959 from the leaders of the National Catholic Education Association (NCEA) about closing some Catholic schools. Because fewer nuns were available for teaching, they thought there wouldn’t be enough money to maintain the schools in the future. I wrote a letter to the editor of the St. Louis Catholic paper, saying the bishops could wave the white flag of surrender but we parents were going to fight for our rights, for justice in education.

At the very same time, the National Education Association (NEA) had proposed a bill–the Murray-Metcalf Bill–to begin providing the first federal aid to K-12 education. It was a four-year bill, providing $25 per child the first year, $50 the next, $75 the next, and $100 the fourth year. The total amount of aid was determined by counting all children of elementary and secondary school age in both public and private schools. The problem was that all of the aid money–including the share for students in private schools–was to be given only to the public schools. We called it the “Teacher’s Pet Bill.”

My letter generated a lot of responses from a wide range of people, such as Vincent Corley, an insurance executive in St. Louis, and Judge Anthony Daly, a constitutional lawyer from Alton, Illinois. A group of eight of us met in our living room in May 1959 to decide what to do.

We formed Citizens for Educational Freedom to promote parental rights in education and the principle of “A Fair Share for Every Child.” We started off with just $40 in the bank. On the other hand, the NEA had committed $2 million to get the Murray-Metcalf Bill passed–and $2 million was a lot of money in 1959.

Martin: I was news editor of the St. Louis Globe-Democrat in those days. We ran an item in our paper about this group organizing locally and the Associated Press picked up the story, giving it considerable exposure across the country.

We began hearing from people in Michigan, New York, Ohio, and many other states. For example, there was Bob Hoffman, a lawyer from Erlanger, Kentucky; Stuart Hubbel, a lawyer from Michigan; and Glenn Andreas, a banker from Pella, Iowa, and a leader in the Christian Reformed Church. We also heard from influential people in Missouri, too, like David Grant, an African-American who was counsel for the mayor in St. Louis. As a result, we attracted a large number of people to set up chapters in different states quite quickly, and CEF became a nationwide organization.

Mae: I even got a letter from Walla-Walla, Australia, asking, “Could we have some of your literature because we’re trying to claim our parents’ rights, too.”

Clowes: What happened to the Murray-Metcalf Bill?

Mae: When we started, Eisenhower was president, and he was sound on the parents’ rights issue, but when John F. Kennedy became president, he wanted the Murray-Metcalf Bill passed to please the NEA. Fortunately, we had an ally in Congressman James Delaney, from Queens, New York, who was chairman of the Rules Committee. He said, “I will not let this bill out unless it gives the children in private schools an equal right to education funds.”

We succeeded in holding off the NEA’s bill for six years, from 1959 to 1965, when we met with President Lyndon Johnson at the White House. He persuaded the NEA to compromise and so the 1965 Elementary and Secondary Education Act contains the principle that we had fought for: a fair share for every child. The law was approved with a statement saying that all children, in both public and private schools, shall receive equal benefits in categorical aid.

The problem was, the responsibility for administering categorical aid was given to the public schools. The public school administrators could then play all kinds of games to make it difficult for children in private schools to receive their rightful benefits. For example, the private school principal would perhaps receive the forms for categorical aid only on the day they were due to be turned in.

Clowes: What made you focus on “parents’ rights”?

Martin: One reason was because of the influence of Father Virgil Blum. His name is very important in the parents’ rights movement. He was a political scientist at Marquette University in Milwaukee, and in 1958 he wrote a book called Freedom of Choice in Education, advocating school vouchers and education tax credits. I gave the book a very favorable review in a Catholic house organ called the Homiletic & Pastoral Review, and subsequently we became acquainted. He was our mentor in those early days.

We said the education system should be changed to recognize parents’ rights. Parents should have the choice of where to spend their education dollars.

Mae: The big idea was: If you’re going to collect money for a program for everyone, then the money has to be distributed fairly. In the Catholic church, we say, “The principles of social justice make for good government.” And in programs like Social Security and public education, the principle of distributive justice is important. Distributive justice says all eligible people are to receive the benefits from a social program that everybody pays into. That was why we opposed the Murray-Metcalf Bill: It cut off children in private schools from any benefits, even though the idea was to help all children.

It is a violation of distributive justice to discriminate against one eligible recipient by favoring another. But that is exactly what the education system does today: Everyone pays in, but one small group of children–those in private schools–is discriminated against because the benefits are made available only to children in public schools. For example, if you collected Social Security taxes from everyone and then said only white people were eligible to receive benefits, that would rightly be viewed as discriminatory. But somehow it isn’t seen as discriminatory when the government says only children in public schools are eligible to receive benefits from the education taxes everyone has to pay.

Clowes: Social Security recipients also can give money from their government checks to a religious institution without fear of being slapped with a First Amendment lawsuit from the ACLU.

Mae: That’s correct. What we called for in education was, “A fair share for every child.” Just as seniors receive a Social Security check they can cash to cover their living expenses, school-age children would receive a voucher, or Edu-Card as we called it, that their parents could take to a school of their choosing and redeem to pay for the child’s education.

The principle we always upheld was that the parents of every child should have a fair share of the taxes for education out of a single, visible, state education fund. Right now, there are so many different education funds that most people can’t see what’s going on. All school-age children would receive a fair share–not a single national figure, or even a single state figure, but one that took into account the different costs of living in different areas.

Martin: We started using the name “Junior GI Bill of Rights” to convey the idea of parents’ rights in K-12 education. Congressman Delaney actually introduced a bill with that name in 1962, and Mae testified on it before the House Education Committee.

Clowes: What happened after passage of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act in 1965?

Martin: That’s when we began in earnest to work at the state level, seeking at least some semblance of fairness in the allocation of education funds. We had bus bills, we had textbook bills, we had special education bills.

To counter our argument for a fair share, our enemies came up with the name “parochi-aid” to try to make it look like aid to the Catholic church, which of course it wasn’t. We always espoused aid to parents, not to schools. While some bills did provide aid to schools, most of them did not. Our issue always was fairness to parents.

Mae: Like Milton Friedman, we were opposed to the institution receiving the aid. You can’t create a market by giving aid to the producer. You give the aid to the consumer so the consumer has freedom of choice.

We also encouraged challenges to laws that discriminated against children in private schools. Here, Dr. Daniel McGarry of St. Louis University was a tremendous help, because he was a legal scholar on Supreme Court cases involving religious freedom.

William Ball, a lawyer from Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, also was on our board, and he argued many cases before the U.S. Supreme Court. He built his arguments on previous court rulings in religious freedom cases. One was the New Jersey Everson case in 1947, where the court ruled it was constitutional for the state to pay for bus transportation for children who attended religious schools. Another was the Seventh Day Adventist Sherbert case in 1963, where the court held that people could not be denied benefits because of their religious beliefs.

Martin: Two of the most important cases that William Ball argued were Wisconsin v. Yoder (1972), which recognized the right of Amish parents to control the education of their children, and Zobrest (1993), which recognized that a handicapped child in a religious school had a right to government aid.

There was a whole series of favorable rulings. For example, there were two Minnesota cases, Board of Education v. Allen (1968), where the court said the state could lend textbooks to private and religious schools; and Mueller v. Allen (1983), where the court ruled in favor of a state law allowing taxpayers to deduct private school expenses from their state income taxes.

The most significant ruling was the Zelman decision in 2002, involving the Cleveland, Ohio Scholarship Program, where the court ruled it was constitutional for parents to choose to spend their public education funds at a religious school. When we started out, that idea was jeered by so many people–including even a lot of our own supporters. But now poor children in Cleveland can benefit from good private schools.

Clowes: How do you view the current push for tax credits and charter schools as alternatives to vouchers?

Mae: We have people calling our office every day asking how they can get a scholarship. People want to get their children into a school of their choice, but I think tax credits just give them a crumb. Tax credits don’t hit the real problem in the system, and they also make beggars out of the poor. It looks good when big corporations make donations to scholarship organizations, but then poor families have to beg for a charitable scholarship to get their children a decent education–even though every child is entitled to their fair share of education taxes.

Charter schools are not the solution, either, because they are still public schools. They help the public school monopoly by keeping the public school administration in control of all the schools. That’s not freedom. What we want is freedom of choice across the board. And that goes for Christians, Jews, all religions. Religious freedom means different people have the right to practice different religions.

Clowes: What’s your advice to today’s school choice advocates?

Mae: Never give up!

Martin: Fight. My advice to the younger people is for the parents to get more directly involved in school choice as political action, as part of the civil rights movement. I regard parental choice in education as the last remaining civil rights battle. Parents need to demand fairness for their children. They must insist on parents making the decisions about their children’s education. They must demand the right to spend their fair share of education funds at schools they choose.