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

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America has two strong, yet conflicting, educationaltraditions. One is our tradition of educationalfreedom, and the other is a strong, thoughshorter, tradition of state-controlled schooling.

In the wake of the Supreme Court's historicdecision in Zelman v. Simmons-Harris upholdingschool choice programs, more and more familiesare questioning whether state control over educationaldecisions is really best. Decades of publicschool failure in our inner cities have contributedto the recent increase in sentiment against standardstate solutions to social problems, and thesuccess of school choice programs in Milwaukeeand elsewhere has challenged the conventionalwisdom that families with low incomes cannot orwill not make good choices for their own children.

In this paper we examine the American traditionof educational freedom, following its ebband flow at various points in our history.America's ethos of educational freedom hasalways been strong, tied to our values of pluralism,tolerance, and free inquiry. But our legacy offreedom has suffered repeated assaults by individualsand groups who wish to use state controlover schooling to homogenize American culture.

We then examine recent victories for educationalfreedom, such as the historic Supreme Courtdecision upholding school choice and the introductionof new school choice programs aroundthe country. Finally, we outline the most criticaladditional freedoms that parents and familiesneed in the areas of school choice, private schoolfreedom, homeschooling, and religious neutrality.

Recent victories for educational freedom areencouraging but only a beginning. School choiceis legal, but it is not widespread, and opponentsof educational freedom are threatening tosmother existing private schools in a morass ofnew regulations, which would dictate everythingfrom curriculum to staffing.

Supporters of educational freedom must notwin legal battles while losing the public policywar. An educational freedom agenda includingchoice for all families, religious neutrality, freedomfor private schools, and protection forhomeschooling families will ensure that educationalfreedom provides real benefits to familieswho are harmed by current policies.

Marie Gryphon and Emily A. Meyer

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