Policy Analysis No. 492

Our History of Educational Freedom: What It Should Mean for Families Today

By Marie Gryphon and Emily A. Meyer
October 8, 2003

Executive Summary

America has two strong, yet conflicting, educational traditions. One is our tradition of educational freedom, and the other is a strong, though shorter, tradition of state-controlled schooling.

In the wake of the Supreme Court’s historic decision in Zelman v. Simmons-Harris upholding school choice programs, more and more families are questioning whether state control over educational decisions is really best. Decades of public school failure in our inner cities have contributed to the recent increase in sentiment against standard state solutions to social problems, and the success of school choice programs in Milwaukee and elsewhere has challenged the conventional wisdom that families with low incomes cannot or will not make good choices for their own children.

In this paper we examine the American tradition of educational freedom, following its ebb and flow at various points in our history. America’s ethos of educational freedom has always been strong, tied to our values of pluralism, tolerance, and free inquiry. But our legacy of freedom has suffered repeated assaults by individuals and groups who wish to use state control over schooling to homogenize American culture.

We then examine recent victories for educational freedom, such as the historic Supreme Court decision upholding school choice and the introduction of new school choice programs around the country. Finally, we outline the most critical additional freedoms that parents and families need in the areas of school choice, private school freedom, homeschooling, and religious neutrality.

Recent victories for educational freedom are encouraging but only a beginning. School choice is legal, but it is not widespread, and opponents of educational freedom are threatening to smother existing private schools in a morass of new regulations, which would dictate everything from curriculum to staffing.

Supporters of educational freedom must not win legal battles while losing the public policy war. An educational freedom agenda including choice for all families, religious neutrality, freedom for private schools, and protection for homeschooling families will ensure that educational freedom provides real benefits to families who are harmed by current policies.

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Marie Gryphon is a policy analyst and Emily A. Meyer is a research assistant in the Center for Educational Freedom at the Cato Institute.