Zelman was a step forward; now empower all parents to choose

John E. Coons

Editor’s note: This is the first of two post we’re running this week to commemorate the 10th anniversary of the monumental U.S. Supreme Court decision in Zelman v. Simmons-Harris, which upheld the constitutionality of the voucher program in Cleveland, Ohio and kicked open the doors for expanded school choice nationwide.

Zelman made clear that the federal constitution allows states to give money to parents that they can use for tuition at religious schools. So long as states don’t directly finance the school itself, no foul. Sadly, some states have constitutions with “Blaine Amendments” that do forbid helping parents this way. These are relics of bigotry; hopefully, the federal courts or sheer political shame will one day erase them.

Would a national commitment to parental choice be a good thing? Think about it. First, remember that the choice of a religious school by parents who pay is a long settled constitutional right. It is widely exercised by those who can afford it. Middle class people in fact have considerable control over where their children enroll and what they learn; they can move to a house in their favorite suburb or they can pay private school tuition.

Clearly, our society is committed to the proposition that parental choice is a social good—at least when made by those who can pay for it themselves. The real issue, then, is whether choice is a good for kid, kin, and country when exercised by families of ordinary means and by the poor.

More bluntly—do we or don’t we want inner-city citizens exercising their rights over their own children? Why have we made it so hard for them? And even where we do allow them to choose a bit (as with public charter schools), what do we, as a society, gain or lose by excluding religious private schools as one among many choices?

Long ago Plato gave arguments for having the state seize complete authority over the child at birth from all families—rich and poor. He thought he knew the one true way and simply did not trust any parent to do right. Maybe there are some platonic arguments for various goods that America achieves when it frustrates choice to the extent it does. Is it somehow productive to snatch the child the child from the authority of ordinary parents for the prime hours of the day for 13 years? What magic is worked by government monopoly over the core experience of the child outside the home?

Is it right that we assume that ordinary parents who cannot afford to pay tuition do not deserve that choice, even if they believe the choice would be best for their children? Crime is, to be sure, more common among lower income groups. But is it less common than it would be if the government were to allow choice? What is cause here and what is effect? Do kids (and all of us) really improve by having complete strangers decide what is worth learning? And do these unchosen strangers do a better job at transmitting the ideas that all of us think important?

There are two kinds of such ideas: (1) factual knowledge and skills (language, mathematics, science—the stuff of test scores); and (2) value stuff—just what is the good that one is supposed to be chasing in life?  Most of the opinions that get expressed about parental choice assume that the principal question is the first one. Do kids learn more or less of the testable, factual stuff in schools chosen by parents? After two decades of arguments between professional score counters the rough answer so far seems to be that choice does raise scores—if only a bit. It is hard to tell how much so long as private school choice programs are restricted and can serve only a small percentage of the total demand for them. Some of us hope that this debate will wind down. One can legitimately argue that in a close case such as this, the answer doesn’t matter much. At least we know that choice doesn’t hurt. It’s time to concentrate on something else. The very evident passion on this question must come from some other source than test scores, and we ought to see that this is so.

Is it the cost of choice that bothers the critic? Evidently not. So far choice is a very good deal for taxpayers. Where there is choice, so far, the exploding cost of education has begun to drop—except, in cases like D.C., where the government has bailed out the old public system. In any event, the new schools of choice are cheaper.

No wonder the teachers unions worry; choice poses a risk that the pie will diminish. The unions might have to start their own schools of choice and even compete for parental favor in traditional public schools. Some jobs would be lost to gain others. The unions might fail as sole financial representatives for teachers. As Albert Shanker used to tell me: “I get paid by teachers, not students.”

Of course, it is the students’ presence that generates the dollars for teachers; but let it be. The point is that with choice, educators have to listen. There is truth to the talk about the blessings of the market. Choice, then, does give us marginally better scores at lower cost.

Does the test score/cost story leave something out? Only the crucial question of what roles families and parenting play in a free society, and what is the long-range effect of disempowering parents? If parental responsibility and social cohesion are something that society should value, why should we confine choice to those who can pay?

Zelman tells the state that it can legally support parental responsibility with subsidies for school choice. If this is good policy, let’s proceed as even now some states are doing. But is it? Is it good for kids and for society to have parents who in effect must make a choice as a normal experience of family life? I think so.

Choice is a long-range social investment. It is the forecast that, by and large—and with exceptions—Americans will have better lives, if all parents bear the same responsibility for learning something about schooling, then deciding which school most nearly represents their vision of the good. Obviously, this includes religious schools, just as it does now for those who can pay. Zelman says it’s OK. We must begin to see that it is much more than OK. It is a moral imperative for the child and for the society.

As politics over time comes to support choice, lawyers who admire Zelman should be asking whether parents whom a state would oblige to educate their children must—as a right—be financially empowered by that state to meet that responsibility.

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