Commentary

A New Twist on Parental Choice

Should parents be able to choose the kind of education their children get? A number of commentators say yes, but only if the choice is between (A) indoctrination in a vast island prison and (B) school in the United States. But apparently the commentators feel that parents’ freedom of choice should not extend to deciding which schools are best for their children within the United States.

Columnists such as Mary McGrory and Richard Cohen, the National Council of Churches and others claim that allowing the father of Elian Gonzalez to determine where the six-year-old shall live is a no-brainer. It’s the right of the parents to decide, they say. Curiously, these are the same people who also strenuously oppose allowing parents, equipped with school vouchers, to choose from among a wide variety of educational options.

The NCC issued a statement on January 4 noting that it had sent a mission to Cuba “to discover ways to return Elian Gonzalez to his father and family in Cuba.” Joan Brown Campbell, representing the NCC, issued a statement that quoted Elian’s father as saying, “I should be in charge of my child’s education, where he goes to school, and what kind of schooling he receives.” That sounds like a strong argument. But in May of last year the NCC also publicly called for resistance to “the siren song of school vouchers” and urged greater state control over charter schools. The NCC seems to stand foursquare for a parent’s right to be in charge of a child’s education, unless that child lives in the United States. (Ignore for a moment that a father cannot really be “in charge” of his own child’s education in Cuba, where children are forcibly indoctrinated in communist dogma.)

Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen wrote on January 4 that it is “apparent that when it comes to deciding ‘who speaks for the child,’ it is the father back in Cuba.” Back in May of last year, Cohen pooh-poohed school choice, writing that “parental choice carries with it the promise of reform but also the threat of a debacle. Even the vaunted market system does not work for everyone, especially those consumers who can’t afford to consume.” Because the “market system does not work for everyone,” Cohen opposes granting parents more freedom to make educational choices for their children — in America, at least. (Does Cohen believe our state-run school system works “for everyone”?)

Another Post columnist, Mary McGrory, called for sending Elian Gonzalez back to Cuba, concluding that “the sacred right [of a parent] should prevail.” In February 1994 McGrory praised Secretary of Education Richard Riley’s attack on school choice: “I am for anything that is designed to improve the public schools. Vouchers are not designed to improve them, but to eliminate them. The public schools are an absolutely critical part of our democracy.” Apparently, a parent’s right to choose is sacred only if it places a child under the control of a totalitarian state.

Unlike Cohen, McGrory, the NCC and other commentators, I do not find the case a “no-brainer.” On the one hand is the strong argument that the parent should decide. But on the other hand is the fact that we cannot know with certainty what the father’s real beliefs are (how many prisoners can openly express their preferences?). We must also consider that sending the boy to Cuba is effectively a one-way trip to prison. Because of this, sending the boy back would be a grave injustice. The father’s parental rights count, but other considerations should incline us toward allowing Elian’s family in Miami to continue to be responsible for him.

But what should we say of people who endorse, as the NCC does, the statement of Elian’s father that “I should be in charge of my child’s education, where he goes to school, and what kind of schooling he receives” and then vigorously oppose meaningful parental choice in education? “Hypocrisy” is clearly the mildest descriptive term that would be appropriate.

Tom G. Palmer is a fellow in social thought at the Cato Institute.