Friday, October 10, 2003

Rights and Reason: Freedom in Education

The Cato Institute has published a new Policy Analysis by Marie Gryphon and Emily A. Meyer on the history of educational freedom in America. This is from the executive summary:
America has two strong, yet conflicting, educational traditions. One is our tradition of educational freedom, and the other is a strong, though shorter, tradition of state-controlled schooling.

In the wake of the Supreme Court's historic decision in Zelman v. Simmons-Harris upholding school choice programs, more and more families are questioning whether state control over educational decisions is really best. Decades of public school failure in our inner cities have contributed to the recent increase in sentiment against standard state solutions to social problems, and the success of school choice programs in Milwaukee and elsewhere has challenged the conventional wisdom that families with low incomes cannot or will not make good choices for their own children.

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

We then examine recent victories for educational freedom, such as the historic Supreme Court decision upholding school choice and the introduction of new school choice programs around the country. Finally, we outline the most critical additional freedoms that parents and families need in the areas of school choice, private school freedom, homeschooling, and religious neutrality.

Recent victories for educational freedom are encouraging but only a beginning. School choice is legal, but it is not widespread, and opponents of educational freedom are threatening to smother existing private schools in a morass of new regulations, which would dictate everything from curriculum to staffing.

Supporters of educational freedom must not win legal battles while losing the public policy war. An educational freedom agenda including choice for all families, religious neutrality, freedom for private schools, and protection for homeschooling families will ensure that educational freedom provides real benefits to families who are harmed by current policies.
Recently there has been a division in the home education movement over the political agenda of the Home School Legal Defense Association, the evangelical Christian group that has emerged as the leading lobbyist for home education issues. HSLDA is backing a congressional bill called the Home School Non-Discrimination Act (HONDA) that is opposed by many other home educators. HONDA would give homeschoolers access to certain federal funds and tax breaks, as well prevent colleges from denying admission on the basis of homeschooled status. HONDA opponents argue there is no need for this legislation, and that the bill would actually open the door for federal regulation of homeschooling. For example, the bill contains a congressional finding that home education "has proven to be an effective means for young people to achieve success on standardized tests and to learn valuable socialization skills." This could easily lead teacher unions and Department of Education bureaucrats to argue for mandatory testing and curriculum regulation of homeschools.

HSLDA could be falling into the trap Cato warns of: Winning trivial battles while surrendering on the larger policy issues. It doesn't help any when HSLDA's leader, Michael Farris, is seen promoting non-home education issues, such as his recent testimony calling for a constitutional amendment to ban gay marraiges. The educational establishment remains dismissive of homeschooling because of the well-known affiliation between home educators and evangelical Christianity. Ultimately, the home education movement must fully embrace individual rights as the basis of their cause; to do any less will squander the moral (and policy) high ground.

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