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

Justice for Education

James W. Skillen


November 19, 2010
by James W. Skillen

(In this column we explore the principles that guide the Center for Public Justice and the ways in which people put principles into practice. For the first few weeks, to provide a quick reference for those who want to know where the Center stands on various issues, we will use edited versions of articles Jim Skillen wrote for The Public Justice Report which introduce our Guidelines for Government and Citizenship.)

"Parents bear primary responsibility for the nurture and education of their children. This fact is recognized in both American and international law." This thesis at the beginning of the Guideline on Education goes to the heart of one of the deepest sources of controversy in American schooling.

While American law recognizes that parents have principal responsibility for the education of their children, cities and states have, since early in the Republic's history, assumed primary responsibility for providing schooling. Governments at all levels now function as if they bear primary responsibility for educating American citizens. The conflict between two principals—parents and the government—in education has led to any number of controversies in American education policy. Different families often want different kinds of schooling for their children; government agencies typically aim for a single system that treats everyone the same. Educators want to be innovative; governing administrators seek stability and require long periods to make changes. Parents and families are religiously diverse; government-run schools have to be uniform.

But for government to guarantee equity and fairness in education it does not need to own and operate schools, or compose the curricula, or hire teachers. If parents are the principals in the education of their children, then government's actions should be carried out in ways that support parents and assist them in fulfilling their responsibilities as well as fulfilling the government's responsibility to assure all citizens of a basic education. Government can support a diversity of school systems and parental choices without having to own and operate schools.

Throughout American history some schools have been founded and run by organizations other than governments. Churches, groups of parents, independent educators, and others have established schools. Many parents prefer schools other than those run by governments. Parental choice of such schools should not be hindered if governments are treating all citizens equitably.

In the U.S., parents are, for the most part, free to choose from among schools, including nongovernment schools. And nongovernment schools are, for the most part, free to decide how they want to teach students and govern themselves. But there is a hitch. American governments at all levels direct almost all of the tax-collected funds for schooling only to the government-run schools. This means that if parents choose independent schools, they suddenly become responsible to pay their own way with little or no public support, even though they continue to pay taxes to support education. And in the case of poorer parents, there may be no choice at all because they cannot afford non-government alternatives.

For nearly 30 years, the Center for Public Justice has been calling for a fundamental reform of public schooling to overcome the long-standing injustice of monopoly funding of a single government-run school system and to move towards equitable pluralism in education: "Equitable public funding should be offered without regard to the religious, philosophical, or pedagogical differences among the variety of certified schools parents choose."

I do not want to suggest that giving equitable public funding to all students would solve all of the educational problems now facing our country. Many problems facing education arise from other sources. Yet many of these problems could be addressed more constructively if parents had freedom to choose where to send their children to school.

—James W. Skillen is the former president of the Center for Public Justice.

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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.”