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?