Trent England | April 10, 2015
School Choice and Freedom of Conscience
The Oklahoma Supreme Court is considering whether to shut down the Lindsey Nicole Henry Scholarship program, which provides funds for a few hundred Oklahoma students with disabilities to attend education programs outside ordinary public schools. Plaintiffs’ weapon is the so-called Blaine Amendment in the Oklahoma Constitution, a provision originally designed to discriminate against Catholics.
Those suing to shut down the Henry scholarships are asking the court to expand its interpretation of that provision in the state constitution. To be fair, plaintiffs are surely less interested in attacking faith than defending bureaucratic turf and funding. Nevertheless, should the court decide in their favor, religious schools, hospitals and other services providers could find themselves the latest victims of anti-religious bigotry.
While this fight is over a relatively narrow school choice program, there are many proposals to broaden school choice, possibly even to all Oklahoma families. The question is whether parents or politicians should direct the funds already set aside to educate each Oklahoma child.
Defenders of the status quo, which have enjoyed a monopoly on those dollars, make the argument that these education funds should not go to private, and particularly not to religious, education programs.
They are not only wrong, but 180-degrees wrong. Protecting freedom of conscience, especially in the 21st century, requires school choice. In our diverse society, allowing government to dominate education infringes on minority -- and sometimes majority -- rights in increasingly obvious ways.
Consider that some government and public school officials are implementing policies that eliminate single-sex locker rooms. This is law in California, and policy in some Nevada school districts. While it may come as no surprise to anyone aware of the National Education Association’s partnership with groups that favor teaching such ideas to elementary students, many American families find these policies disturbing and potentially dangerous.
Meanwhile, in Seattle, a public school's staff encouraged and assisted a 15-year-old girl to have an abortion and to hide it from her family.
Over in the history department, new AP standards embrace the idea that history is not about people, but about groups. Instead of teaching that ideas and actions have consequences, AP students will learn that human beings are merely pushed and pulled by larger economic forces and historical trends. While this is one way to teach history, it is a profoundly political way that many families may find undesirable.
Political battles over everything from curricula to school bathrooms will rage on so long as education is a government-controlled monopoly. Put something under government control, and it becomes political (so long as the people remain free, as James Madison points out in Federalist No. 10).
These battles, however, are unnecessary. They will end when politicians return power to parents to make choices about where and how to educate their own children. Ultimately, the school choice debate is inexorably linked with the right to freedom of conscience and for parents to direct the upbringing of their own children.
David and Ann Brown Distinguished Fellow
Trent England is the David and Ann Brown Distinguished Fellow at the Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs, where he previously served as executive vice president. He is also the founder and executive director of Save Our States, which educates Americans about the importance of the Electoral College. England is a producer of the feature-length documentary “Safeguard: An Electoral College Story.” He has appeared three times on Fox & Friends and is a frequent guest on media programs from coast to coast. He is the author of Why We Must Defend the Electoral College and a contributor to The Heritage Guide to the Constitution and One Nation Under Arrest: How Crazy Laws, Rogue Prosecutors, and Activist Judges Threaten Your Liberty. His writing has also appeared in the Wall Street Journal, USA Today, Washington Times, Hillsdale College's Imprimis speech digest, and other publications. Trent formerly hosted morning drive-time radio in Oklahoma City and has filled for various radio hosts including Ben Shapiro. A former legal policy analyst at The Heritage Foundation, he holds a law degree from The George Mason University School of Law and a bachelor of arts in government from Claremont McKenna College.