| March 2, 2011

School choice is a matter of religious liberty

For too long, the education debate has centered on vocational training rather than the complete education of an individual. Likewise, the education reform debate has centered on preparing workers for the marketplace. Increasing competition and decreasing the stultifying power of the teachers’ unions have rightfully been emphasized. While important, there is much more at stake.

Education is not just about test scores or career paths, but about quality of life, and more importantly, personal identity. Moreover, education is a powerful means of transmitting culture. However, the decision as to which culture to transmit lies, by natural right, in the institution that predates the state, namely the family.

Just as any reasonable person would consider it unjust for the state to forcibly take the child of a Protestant and send him to a Catholic school or vice versa, so too it is unjust for the state to mandate school attendance, tax families to pay for public schools that have become openly hostile to traditional religion, and not provide the means to choose another educational institution that is in accord with the family’s faith.

Within the past few decades the case that secular schools undermine traditional faith has become indisputable. From Supreme Court decisions a generation ago, to minute regulation of the use of classroom space in off hours, the schoolhouse has become hostile to the faith of a great portion of the people.

Tocqueville said the barriers to tyranny are grammar, manners, religious principle, hierarchical structure, local ties, and sacred space. School choice ensures the survival of each.

The school choice movement did not begin with Milton Friedman, who accelerated the cause. Rather it was central to the religious liberty debates of the antebellum North and reverberated across Western Europe throughout the 19th and early 20th centuries (mainly France, England, and Germany). In the North, future Secretary of State William Henry Seward pushed vigorously for support to parochial schools. In Western Europe, the opposition to parochial schools through enforced secularism showed the kind of bigotry and intolerance the secular left claims is the monopoly of the faithful.

In the late 19th century anti-Catholic animus inspired the so-called Blaine Amendments, which banned “public” money from ending up in the hands of “sectarian” schools. In 1875, James G. Blaine proposed an amendment to the U.S. Constitution that would have banned “public” funds from benefiting sectarian schools. When this effort failed, the anti-parochial efforts focused on state constitutions where they met with considerable success, including in Oklahoma. With the current secular contempt for evangelicals, Blaine Amendments have, in effect, been turned against another religious group.

Proponents of Blaine Amendments make the same mistake as do opponents of tax cuts. They falsely assume public money belongs to the government. Public money does not, however, belong to the government but to the people. Allowing educational money to follow students is no more of a threat to the separation of church and state than a student using G.I. Bill funds to help pay tuition to a Catholic university or another student using tax deductions to defray costs at a Methodist university (as was the case for the writers of this essay).

Taxation for the purpose of funding government schools, combined with the legal requirement of school attendance, creates a sort of unfunded mandate, something conservatives attacked well in the 1990s and should attack anew. Therefore, a necessary next step in education reform is to repeal Oklahoma’s Blaine Amendment. For if parents have the right to have the primary and ultimate say in the religious training and character formation of their children; and if the state mandates that children spend their years from ages 5 to16 in a school environment; then the state must provide the means for parents to choose the schooling of their choice.

From the Jesuit classical colleges of New France to the great strides in literacy arising from the emphasis on the Bible held by early evangelicals, Christians on this continent have ever been in the forefront of the belief that education is not merely occupational training, but rather formation of the entire person. Parents have not the right, but the duty to guide that formation. The state cannot take away this duty. Whether by vouchers, tax credits, or tax deductions, the state must equip parents to fulfill this duty.

To accomplish this will require seizing the moment. With the 2010 elections, Oklahomans witnessed an unprecedented changing of the guard. The time for radical (translated literally, “to the root”) education reform is ripe. A wasted opportunity will not be forgiven lightly.

Jason Reese, a Roman Catholic, is an attorney in Oklahoma City.

Former OCPA marketing director Brian Hobbs is a deacon at Quail Springs Baptist Church.

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