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Should Parental Choice Be for All Schools?

The debate over school choice almost always focuses on whether non-public schools post better academic outcomes than traditional public schools ("School Choice Deniers," The Wall Street Journal, Apr. 3).  But I think that misses the point. It's up to parents alone to decide if a particular school meets the needs and interests of their children.

For example, a meta-analysis last year by the Friedman Foundation found that 14 of 18 empirical studies of programs in which students were chosen at random by lotteries posted positive academic results.  But even if non-public schools academically bat 1.000, that may be less important than other factors to many parents.  Who can tell them they are wrong?

Richard Kahlenberg, whom I greatly respect, has addressed this issue ("America Needs Public School Choice, Not Private School Vouchers,"The Century Foundation, Mar. 1).  But I was disappointed that he didn't speak to the concern of parents who would be restricted under his proposal to choosing only public schools.  Ideally, every neighborhood public school would be so sterling that few, if any, parents would not enroll their children there.  Kahlenberg admits that's not the case.  Nevertheless, his solution is to allow parents to send their children only to any public school.  But what if all public schools within reasonable commuting distance are still underperforming? 

That's why I support the right of parents to send their children to any school, with the exception of religious schools.  I draw the line there because of the wall between church and state.  I say so knowing full well the U.S. Supreme Court's ruling in Zelman v. Simmons-Harris in 2002 that tuition aid in the form of vouchers when given directly to parents does not violate the Establishment Clause of the Constitution. 

Unfortunately, the wall is slowly eroding as a result. For example, Arizona recently passed universal education savings accounts ("Arizona's Grand School Choice," The Wall Street Journal, Apr. 11).  The state deposits 90 percent of what it pays for each student into an account that parents can withdraw to pay for private school tuition, tutoring, home schooling and other approved education expenses.  The funds can be used for religious schools as well.  I say it's the latter that makes a mockery of the U.S. Constitution.

But the issue isn't settled by a long shot.  The U.S. Supreme Court will again be asked to determine if state funds can be used at religious schools ("Religious Liberty at the Supremes," The Wall Street Journal, Apr. 14).  This time it involves Trinity Lutheran, which wants to resurface a church playground.  The Missouri Department of Natural Resources denied the request because the Missouri Constitution says that "no money shall ever be taken from the public treasury, directly or indirectly, in aid of any church, sect, or denomination of religion."  That seems clear enough to me.

That's why I say we haven't heard the last about the subject. 

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The opinions expressed in Walt Gardner's Reality Check are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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