Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.

Putting Parents First in Education

Jennifer A. Marshall


July 1, 2011
by Jennifer A. Marshall

“The D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program has changed my life and has made me the successful young man standing before you now,” Ronald Holassie told U.S. Senators at a hearing on Capitol Hill last year. This spring, Ronald graduated from Archbishop Carroll High School in Washington, D.C. and is on his way to college in Florida.

Six years ago his mother feared for his future.

Assigned a public school in a low-income neighborhood, Ronald brought home no homework, got poor grades, and was barely surviving in his school’s caustic culture. Public schools in the nation’s capital are notoriously bad. Test scores are the worst in the nation. Just over half the students graduate, and about one out of eight students has been threatened with a weapon.

Ronald is one of a select few students in America who benefited from private school choice this past school year. Just 200,000 of the nation’s 55 million K-12 students had one of the prized spots in 20 school choice programs across the country.  Millions of others are assigned by zip code to failing and often dangerous public schools that no parent would choose, given the opportunity to do otherwise.

But there is hope on the horizon.  This spring brought a bumper crop of activity on school choice: 102 pieces of legislation were introduced in 42 states and the District of Columbia. Twelve of these have been enacted, either creating or expanding existing school choice programs, while many others have made significant progress.

In Congress, Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) was able to restore and expand the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program (DCOSP) during budget negotiations with President Obama in April. DCOSP was on the path to extinction after the prior Congress blocked any new students from entering. Thanks to the Speaker’s effort, Ronald’s little brother Richard now has the opportunity to receive a safe and effective education, following in his brother’s footsteps. 

Just this past week, Florida Governor Rick Scott and Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker each signed bills significantly expanding private school choice in their states. In May, Governor Mitch Daniels of Indiana signed the nation’s largest parental choice in education bill to date, arguing:

For families who cannot find the right traditional public school, or the right charter public school for their child, and are not wealthy enough to move near one, justice requires that we help. We should let these families apply dollars that the state spends on their child to the non-government school of their choice.

In America, as in most societies, education is regarded as a public good that should be supported by all citizens. While we have consensus around government administration of tax dollars for education, that does not mean government should be the sole provider of schooling—especially considering the role of education in a child’s moral and spiritual formation.

While most school choice programs to date have focused on providing immediate opportunity to those most in need—whether low-income or special needs students—all parents should be free to choose their children’s education. Parents have the God-given right and responsibility to direct the education and upbringing of their children, and parental choice in education is the proper policy recognition of this principle.

Parents should be free to educate their children in a wide range of educational settings, including private, religious, and home education, and through hybrid forms that mix these formats with others, such as online learning. The possibilities for educational arrangements that reflect the nature and purpose of human beings better than the status quo have only begun to emerge, and the horizon is rapidly expanding as policies allow new freedom for innovation.

How directly we proceed depends on policymakers who will restore faith in the institution of the family. As Governor Daniels stated in his 2011 State of the State address: “We must begin to honor the parents of Indiana. We must trust them, and respect them enough, to decide when, where, and how their children can receive the best education, and therefore the best chance in life.”

—Jennifer A. Marshall is the Director of the Richard and Helen DeVos Center for Religion and Civil Society at The Heritage Foundation, a think tank in Washington, D.C.

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Capital Commentary is a weekly current-affairs publication of the Center for Public Justice. Published since 1996, it is written to encourage the pursuit of justice. Commentaries do not necessarily represent an official position of the Center for Public Justice but are intended to help advance discussion. Articles, with attribution, may be republished according to our publishing guidelines.”