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School Choice: A Moral Imperative
School Choice: A Moral Imperative
Friday, June 10, 2005
U.S. Freedom Foundation www.freedomfoundation.us
David W. Kirkpatrick Senior Education Fellow
In its 1925 Pierce v. Society of Sisters decision, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that an Oregon voter-approved initiative requiring all children to be educated only in a public school 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."
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 a key issue during the school choice debate of recent years.
Many school choice opponents 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 this same right to others. That is, those objecting to public schools should not be compelled to pay taxes to support them.
A variation of this argument is that those who want to educate their children other than in the public schools should have to pay for it.
But what if they can't?
This is why, especially since the Court's 2002 decision finding school vouchers in Cleveland to be constitutional, the debate is really about money. This argument is irrelevant for those who can afford school choice, an option most often exercised by living in the school district or even within the attendance area of a school of choice.
The common remark that the three most important factors in the value of a home are location, location, location often translates, for couples with children, into school, school, school.
Low-income parents can afford neither the option of a nonpublic school, nor residence in an acceptable school district. They are the captives of the local school/system.
To have a constitutional right without the ability to afford it is no right at all. A comparable example existed 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 low-income minorities from voting. That has been ruled unconstitutional.
Similarly, 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.
Stephen Arons, 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."
Few opponents of public funding of school choice have their children in a school where as many as 80% of the students drop out, or where there is violence, or drugs. Or, a real example, where the police were called more than 220 times just from September to March during a school year. Yet they compel other people's children to accept such conditions.
This is not merely unjust; it is immoral.
Those who can afford school choice are not criticized because they select a school that is nearby, or has a religious affiliation, or because they won't make a wise decision. Only low-income parents are so challenged. As if wisdom is a matter of having money.
Are there no affluent fools?
Schools should be more than economic prisons for the poor, not least of all because their children are those with whom the public system has had the least success. The resulting burden is not only on these children, and their parents, but on society in general, and each of us in particular.
When a child attends a school system spending $10,000 per pupil per year, as many urban districts do, and drops out in the 10th grade, he or she not only suffers a lifelong penalty because of an inadequate education , the public has paid $100,000 to no purpose. Further, we, too, will pay a lifelong penalty because such dropouts, will likely spend most of their lives on the economic fringes of society, and not make the contribution, through taxes or otherwise, they otherwise might.
The awareness is slowly growing that school choice is a moral issue where equal justice for all is imperative.
"We have created system of school finance that provides free choice for the rich and compulsory socialization for everyone else. The present method of financing American education discriminates against the poor and the working class and even a large part of the middle class by conditioning the exercise of First Amendment rights of school choice upon an ability to pay while simultaneously eroding the ability to pay through the regressive collection of taxes used exclusively for government schools." p. 211, Stephen Arons, Compelling Belief, NY: McGraw-Hill Book Co., 1983