Parental Freedom in the States and Nation

Published August 1, 1999

School Choice: A Moral Imperative

Earlier this year, a forum on school choice was held in the State House chambers in Montpelier, Vermont, sponsored by the John Dewey Project on Progressive Education. Panelists covered the usual topics, such as constitutionality, competition, and cost.

But the most vital question was touched upon only tangentially, with reference to the 1925 Pierce v. Society of Sisters decision of the U.S. Supreme Court, which was mentioned in the usual context of the court finding that an Oregon initiative requiring all children to attend only a public school during their formative years was unconstitutional. In one of the more famous statements in the Court’s history, it said, “The child is not the mere creature of the State,” and that no child can be compelled to attend a public school provided, of course, that he or she is otherwise being educated.

The question of how to pay for a child’s education in a setting other than a public school was not before the Court and therefore was not considered. That has been the crux of the matter as the question of school choice has become more prominent in recent years.

Many opponents of school choice say they object to paying taxes to educate children in a nonpublic school, particularly a religious one. If they are sincere in this argument, they should grant the right to others that they claim for themselves. That is, those who object to the form of education offered in the public schools should similarly not be compelled to pay taxes to support an educational program they find unacceptable.

A variation of this argument is that those who want to educate their children in some manner other than the public schools should have to pay for it.

But what of those who can’t?

This is why, after all the pro and con arguments about constitutionality, competition, costs, etc., the debate comes down to one of money. The arguments are irrelevant for those who can afford the option of school choice, an option most often exercised by living in the school district, even within the attendance area of the specific school, of choice.

Low-income parents can afford neither the option of a nonpublic school, nor residence in an acceptable school district, much less near an acceptable school. They are the captives of the local school/system whether they like it or not; whether it effectively teaches their children or not. This is compounded by the fact that local school boards, which have the authority to permit open enrollment within their district, or make exceptions for students/parents on appeal, rarely do either.

To have a constitutional right that is dependent upon an ability to pay for it is, for those without adequate funds, no right at all. A comparable example existed in the days when many states required citizens to pay a poll tax before they could exercise their right to vote. That was a device to keep the poor and, especially in southern states, low-income minorities, from voting. That is no longer permissible.

Making the right to school choice contingent upon the ability to pay keeps low-income parents from exercising not one, but two constitutional rights: a school of their choice and freedom of religion.

For such parents to obtain an educational opportunity for their children, they must send their child to a public school and forego their desire to exercise these two rights by sending their child to a school that exemplifies their values.

Panelist Stephen Arons, who raised the Pierce decision at the forum, has been studying this issue for decades. As far back as 1976 he pointed out that, “Conditioning the provision of government benefits upon the sacrifice of fundamental rights has been held unconstitutional before.”

It should be found so on this issue as well.

The awareness is slowly growing that school choice is a moral issue where equal justice for all is imperative.

David Kirkpatrick is a distinguished fellow with the Blum Center.

Excerpted with permission from The Freedom Report (#72, June 18, 1999), Blum Center for Parental Freedom in Education, Marquette University, Brooks Hall 209, P.O. Box 1881, Milwaukee, WI 53201-1881, phone 414/288-7040, fax 414/288-3170, e-mail: