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Much will be written and said over the coming days about the Supreme Court’s landmark decision in the Cleveland school voucher case, Zelman v. Simmons-Harris. There will be important commentary about the legal issues surrounding the case, and plenty of political analysis. Education analysts will talk of school performance, budgets, and spending levels. All of it will be interesting and important, but may miss the fundamental principle and issue at stake – FREEDOM.
At its core, the education debate in America centers on the nature and meaning of freedom. On one side, the leftist establishment and the public education monopoly believes freedom, in it’s practical form can only be granted by government. Only the government can collect the taxes and decide how best to redistribute income and determine the lquality of education children will receive. Freedom is served because government has granted all children an education the government deems adequate. Under this ideology, proposals and plans that give parents the right to say they are dissatisfied and want out the public education monopoly threaten the government’s plan to grant you “freedom.” For taxpayers, who are dissatisfied with the performance of the schools you fund, you can only be granted two options: Either decrease funding for the public monopoly or increase funding for the public monopoly. Of course, the education establishment strongly suggests – through raw, organized political power – that we should always increase funding for the monopoly.
Let me suggest a radical alternative. Freedom comes from the individual. Period. The Founding Fathers specifically limited the powers of government to protect the soverign choices of individuals. We specifically grant power to government to advance common goods -- the national defense and domestic tranquility, for instance. Most Americans have concluded that it is in our best interest to provide all citizens, regardless of income, race or religion with a quality education. But, we as citizens are paying for that education and we, as individuals, demand accountability, quality, and control. In other words, the government is subservient to the parents and the taxpayers. Under this notion of freedom, providing parents with choices and creating competition defines and enhances freedom, rather than somehow threatening it. If we are going to be forced to pay, and we are forced to send our children to school, we as individuals still want to retain the maximum amount of control over our own choices and the maximum amount of accountability from schools.
In practical terms, what do these distinctions mean for a child born and raised in inner city Cleveland, Ohio? First, on a daily basis that child is taught, in its purest form, whether power comes from - the individual or the state. Does his mother have the power to make decisions about where and how she wants her child educated? Or alternatively, is she as a loving, nurturing parent, nonetheless powerless to change the circumstances of her child’s surroundings? I would suggest that basic distinction will do more to educate that child on the nature and meaning of freedom and his relationship to the state than anything he may learn in any school he will attend.
Next, we as Americans don’t just love and protect our freedoms for the heck of it. Americans are a practical people and we love freedom, in part, because freedom works. Under which concept does that child in Cleveland receive a better, more cost-effective education? The public monopoly provides a school where more than two thirds of his classmates read at a “below basic” level. Do we think his mother will choose to send the child to a school that’s performing worse than that? Of course not – with freedom she will make a practical choice and the child will receive a higher quality education. (The research surrounding the results of the Cleveland voucher program overwhelmingly suggests that this is exactly the decision parents make and their children’s educational performance improves as a result of that decision.)
The battle of school choice will go on. It is a fascinating debate that raises real constitutional issues and provides a window in how the Left exercises organized political power. The educational theorists and economists will continue sparring over how best to deliver a higher quality product for (hopefully) better prices. But as we move on, do not forget the central idea and value that drives this debate: Freedom – where it comes from and how we protect, nurture and expand it.