September 5, 2002

All for the Best

In 1925, the Supreme Court of the United States issued a decision known as Pierce v. Society of Sisters that included this declaration:

The fundamental theory of liberty upon which all governments in this Union repose excludes any general power of the State to standardize children by forcing them to accept instruction from public school teachers only.

The reason given by the Court was marvelously clear. The child, the judges observed, is not "a mere Creature of the State." Hence, preparing a child for life belongs first and foremost not to government but rather to "those who nurture it and direct its destiny"–in a word, its parents.

The parent-child relationship, as the Court sees it, is too fundamental, too precious, indeed, too sacred to be trumped or even compromised by any individual or institution. Children are to be educated by their parents and in accord with their parents’ ideals and desires when others participate in the educational enterprise.

Despite this lofty stand of the Supreme Court more than three-quarters of a century ago, the rights of parents as regards the education of their children have not been fully sustained in this nation of ours. The entire citizenry has been taxed to educate our children, but only one form of education has benefited. And whenever this anomaly was protested, there was always a slogan at the ready to silence the protest. Our Founding Fathers, it was claimed, built a "wall," perhaps unknowingly, whereby all taxpayers’ money to educate the children of this land may be used only for educational institutions that exclude the Almighty from their curricula, no matter what the parents believe to be best for their offspring.

On June, 27, 2002, the "wall" slogan began to crumble. In a decision of the Supreme Court of the United States entitled Zelman v. Simmons-Harris it was declared that providing taxpayers’ money for the education of children in private and parochial schools chosen by their parents–the vast majority of whom are themselves taxpayers–is not contrary to the Constitution. It has nothing to do with the establishment of a State religion; and it does no damage whatever to any religion or even to irreligion, for that matter. This decision was, of course, just what one would have legitimately expected from a Court which in 1925 had made it crystal-clear that parents, not the State, are to decide how their children are to be reared, formed and instructed humanly, morally and academically.

The 2002 decision has upset not a few. It will take time for it to become known and appreciated; and it will be the duty of all who rejoice in it to help others understand how fitting, just and right it is. In this connection, it might be helpful to mention some of the more common complaints against school choice, apart from its alleged opposition to the Constitution, a complaint which has finally and happily been put to rest.

Objection: If parents do not want to use the schools the government is providing, they are free to choose the schools they want, and pay for them. They should not expect others to fund their choice.

Response: Parents with good incomes are able to choose schools other than those provided by the government. Other parents are not, and in our democracy this is totally unacceptable. For such parents are no less citizens than the well-to-do. Moreover, if parents who choose to educate their children in government schools should not be held to pay for the education of children in private or parochial schools, neither should parents who choose to educate their children in private or parochial schools be held to pay for the education of children in government schools. All of which perhaps illustrates how superficial and illogical much of the opposition to school choice has been for way too long.

Objection: The Zelman v. Simmons-Harris decision will reduce funds available to government schools.

Response: It will also reduce the number of children in government schools, so that fewer funds will be needed. Furthermore, it is worth observing that the government school system that was the focus of the Zelman v. Simmons-Harris decision is receiving something in the area of $10,000 of taxpayers’ money for each of its students, while the parochial schools which the parents had chosen instead of the government schools are receiving $2,250 per student. All of which would seem to suggest that government schools might have much to gain even monetarily from school choice.

Objection: By having all children formed in one educational system, we can expect that all will think alike and thus make our nation more united and strong.

Response: There are, of course, certain principles and positions about which it is well that all citizens be in basic agreement. Apart from these, however, a variety of opinions and points of view is altogether healthy. For such a variety does not divide a people or weaken them. It rather renders them more tolerant, more curious, more thoughtful and more open to uncovering what is new, valid and true. The 20th century witnessed the tragedy of nation-states that were forced to think in lockstep under the tutelage of such personages as Hitler, Stalin, Mao and a host of other thought-control zealots. Moreover, "diversity" has become a much-touted and often-valuable slogan in recent years. This hardly seems to be the era in which to expel it from education.

Objection: Some of the nongovernmental schools may educate poorly, others may teach anti-social or anti-American lessons.

Response: With the greatest of respect for their teachers and administrators, we might raise the same objection about the government schools of our community, as many do. This, however, is not the place to pursue that issue. Suffice it to say that all schools can fail in their mission and find themselves in need of attention and correction; and it will be the duty of parents and others of goodwill to see to it that both attention and correction are provided, wherever they are needed.

Almost a year ago, I gave a talk to an audience of teachers and administrators from mostly non-private and non-parochial schools and a large number of their supporters. As I was leaving the hall, a well-known champion of the public school system in the City of New York approached me.

"Cardinal," he said, "you will be surprised to learn that I agree with almost everything you said. And my reason is simply this: I am convinced that public schools need private and parochial schools whereby to measure their performance. What is your ‘take’ on that?"

As diplomatically as I could, I told him that my "take" was less than enthusiastic. "Private and parochial schools are not merely to assist public schools in doing their work, any more than public schools are merely to assist private and parochial schools in doing theirs," I explained. "All schools need to be–and have a right to be–treated alike. If they benefit one another because of comparison and competition, great. Still, no group of schools should be thought to be somehow at the service of another. All children in all schools are equally valuable, equally precious."

"Well," my interlocutor concluded with a genuinely friendly smile, "the Supreme Court will never see it that way. So I guess we just continue what we are doing and hope for the best."

As I read the June 27th, 2002, decision of the Supreme Court, I could not help but feel that the "best" in education may be closer than ever before. And my hopes were high.

Edward Cardinal Egan

Archbishop of New York