The U.S. House recently approved an historic measure that, for the first time, would allow many children in the District of Columbia to attend schools chosen by their families. A Senate committee has approved a similar bill, which must now be passed by a Senate majority to become the nation’s first federal school choice law.
It’s a politically bumpy road. The D.C. choice bill passed by a one-vote majority in the House. In the Senate, Ted Kennedy (D-Mass.) and others have threatened to filibuster any attempt to make school choice the law. Opponents of school choice rightly suspect that a victory in D.C. will spur efforts to give families choices elsewhere. But they wrongly suggest that parental choice is a radical concept, or contrary to an American tradition that favors state-controlled schooling.
In fact, America’s educational history is the story of a conflict between two strong traditions: educational freedom vs. state control. Time and again, America’s tradition of educational freedom has benefited children of the poor, the weak, and the marginalized. Time and again, state control of education has been used to protect the interests of entrenched groups rather than provide quality education to the children who need it most.
In the early 1800s, churches and charities in both North and South created schools to educate free blacks, and even some slaves. Following the violent rebellion led by the literate slave Nat Turner, however, white southerners saw that educated slaves would inevitably demand political equality. Their legislatures passed the notorious slave codes, which made it a crime to teach black Americans how to read and write.
The rise of state-regulated schooling in the 1880s and 1890s was also motivated by a perceived threat from racial and religious minorities. This time the concern was due to large waves of immigration. Unlike earlier arrivals, many newer immigrants were Catholic or Eastern European.
America’s Anglo-Saxon political base was afraid that immigrants would retain foreign values if educated in the usual assortment of community and charity schools, causing uncomfortable social change. Some Protestants even saw Catholicism as a threat to democracy. To assimilate immigrant children, legislatures set up “public schools” that were funded by all citizens, but taught Protestant, and not Catholic, doctrine.
During World War I, American cultural xenophobes lashed out against German-American schools. German Americans had a robust subculture at the time, boasting German language newspapers, social clubs, and a network of high quality Lutheran schools.
The start of the war sparked a backlash against the schools, and lawmakers in several states passed laws banning foreign language instruction in all schools to force the rapid cultural assimilation of German children. Only the Supreme Court defended the educational freedom of German and other immigrants by holding the language laws unconstitutional.
During the same period, the Freemasons and the Ku Klux Klan successfully campaigned for an Oregon law that would have shut down private schools entirely by compelling all children to attend Oregon’s state-run schools. Oregon’s law, like the language laws and slave codes, was designed to promote cultural homogeneity and slow social change.
The Supreme Court struck down the Oregon law, and since then parents have had the legal right to send their children to schools that they choose. Middle-class and upper-class families exercise this educational freedom every day, either by buying a house in a neighborhood with a desirable public school or by paying tuition at a private school.
But families who need educational freedom the most — poor families, immigrants, and racial minorities — have been left behind in a monopoly public system designed to benefit middle-class teachers instead of impoverished children.
Our history shows that state control of schooling too often cements inequalities instead of promoting class fluidity and cultural change. Educational freedom, on the other hand, has allowed disenfranchised groups to gain a foothold in America while preserving their values and traditions.
Today’s situation is no different. Our public schools are blatantly segregated along economic lines, an arrangement that keeps better suburban schools exclusive while offering poor families no power to bargain with or escape from failing neighborhood schools. District families deserve more. They deserve the freedom to seek out their children’s best futures.
School choice in the District would be an historic event, but it would not be an historic policy. District parents deserve to realize our history’s most precious educational legacy: the freedom to teach and learn in environments that families deem best.