Commentary

Karey Harwood: What are the limits of “parental choice” when the state is paying for it?

June 20, 2014 

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    Parental choice has limits, and one of those limits is the illegitimacy of using public money to effectuate parental wishes that in the eyes of the state, are contrary to the best interests of children.

A recent forum in Raleigh on the topic of school vouchers brought together four ideologically diverse panelists to discuss the arguments in favor and opposed to the use of private school vouchers. The points of disagreement were sharp, but civil, and although many of the arguments reiterated well-covered territory, the panelists’ comments ultimately brought renewed focus on an important question: What are the limits of a parent’s “freedom of choice” over their child when taxpayers are footing the bill?

Matt Ellinwood, an attorney with the N.C. Justice Center, presented the case against vouchers, using evidence from the country’s longest-running voucher programs. According to the evidence, vouchers do not lead to better academic outcomes, they do not save public schools money, they are not consistently used by the most economically disadvantaged students, and they generally do not provide enough assistance to enable access to truly high-quality private schools.

The Rev. Dr. T. Anthony Spearman of the Clinton Tabernacle AME Zion Church expressed his concern that vouchers do not provide true choice for low income families. Instead, they offer subpar, unaccountable educational environments for already vulnerable children. "With no standards, what is the payoff for the poor children?” he asked.

Karen Duquette, vice president of Parents for Educational Freedom in North Carolina (PEFNC), argued in favor of vouchers, emphasizing the importance of parental choice. She did not dispute that private schools and public schools are not held to the same standards. But she pointed to the poor academic performance of low-income, minority students in the public schools as justification to try something different.

Both Duquette and Robert Numbers, another panelist and an attorney in private practice, expressed faith in parents’ ability to discern a good-quality private school, noting that the kinds of parents who would seek out vouchers would likely be the kinds of parents who would be astute judges of quality. “Caring parents won’t let their students go to bad private schools.”

Indeed, Duquette argued that it was “paternalistic” to assume that low-income families couldn’t make the choice that was best for their children. Even sending children to schools that teach that dinosaurs and human beings co-existed would be acceptable, according to Duquette, because of the nearly sacred quality of parental choice.

PEFNC makes its living arguing for school choice and the group does have a point that educational opportunity shouldn’t depend on the affluence of one’s ZIP code. However, parental choice is too often used as a conversation-stopper by voucher advocates, or as a self-evident truth that needs no closer examination.

In imagining a roomful of students being deliberately taught false and potentially harmful information, I found that Duquette’s troubling line of reasoning reminded me of some important cases of parental authority in another arena: medical decision-making for children.

In a case involving a Jehovah’s Witness child whose parents objected for religious reasons to a blood transfusion that would save their child’s life, the U.S. Supreme Court famously ruled in Prince v. Massachusetts that parents do not have an absolute right to deny children treatment on religious grounds: “Parents may be free to become martyrs themselves. But it does not follow that they are free in identical circumstances to make martyrs of their children before they have reached the age of full and legal discretion when they can make that decision for themselves.”

Of course, teaching discredited information in the classroom, however much we may fear it will limit the futures of the children being so indoctrinated, is not the same as denying children a lifesaving blood transfusion. In another famous case, Wisconsin v. Yoder, the Supreme Court sided with the parents, members of an Old Order Amish group who wanted their children exempted from the state’s requirement that all children attend school until they are either 16 years old or graduate from high school. In this case, the Court did indeed recognize the value of parental choice, even though the Amish parents’ choice ran against what the state had deemed was a necessary minimum education for all children.

Notably, there is one important difference between the Yoder case and the argument for vouchers based on parental choice: the taxpayers of North Carolina are being asked to pay for these vouchers, which will be used in schools that teach anything under the sun. Parental choice has limits, and one of those limits is the illegitimacy of using public money to effectuate parental wishes that in the eyes of the state, are contrary to the best interests of children.

Parental authority is not absolute. And even in areas where we might be inclined to defer to it, such as children’s education, it should not be done with public money.

Karey Harwood is the executive director of Public Schools First North Carolina.

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