The United States justifiably celebrates its pluralism. Peaceful cooperation among citizens from diverse ethnic, religious, and racial backgrounds has not always been realized, but it has been the rule rather than the exception. The mandate to find unity in diversity, captured in the nation’s motto, e pluribus unum, is predicated not on the premise that all peculiarities of creed or color must be washed away; instead, it insists that all such cultural and social differences must be respected. All that is required in return is agreement to the constitutional order that forms the basis of the country’s law: in short, agreement to respect others’ freedoms of speech, religion, and assembly in turn.

Part and parcel of this freedom is the right of parents to educate their children as they see fit. Like all rights, this one carries with it a duty: to prepare the child adequately for participation in society by being attentive to technical and life skills as well as moral formation.

Parental Rights in Education

Yet, this right has been imperfectly recognized for some time. Pursuing the goal of universal education, a worthy end in itself, nineteenth-century reformers gradually concentrated in city, state, and national governments the funding and control of what had been a predominantly non-governmental, disparate, and radically local regime of education. Immediately, the move toward unitary systems fueled conflict over a neuralgic point of America’s pluralist experiment: Protestant-Catholic relations. Controversy over schooling was one of the combustible ingredients leading to explosions of violence in cities such as Philadelphia and New York during the 1830s and 1840s.

A modus vivendi was reached when Catholics determined to build their own parochial system. The Supreme Court guaranteed the legality of the Catholic parochial system in its 1925 Pierce decision, and soon Catholics in the United States would build the largest private school system in the world. At its height in 1965, the system was comprised of 13,500 schools serving 5.6 million students across primary (4.5 million) and secondary levels.1 Tens of millions of Catholics—laity, priests, and consecrated religious—have been trained in these schools; their significance for American Catholicism and American history more generally can hardly be overstated.

Meanwhile, battles over public school curricula continued, as constituencies of many varieties perceived that what they viewed as an appropriate education for their children was not served by a public system that inexorably drifted toward a lowest-common-denominator form of education. Some religious groups such as Lutherans and Dutch Reformed began or maintained their own schools, and parents seeking social status or demanding rigorous standards enrolled their children in private academies.

Thus, the pluralist ideal survived but in a deformed shape. The right of parents to direct their children’s education was recognized in theory, but in practice every citizen was compelled to pay for the government school system. The result was an arrangement unjust at its core. Parents devoted to a particular form of education for religious or other reasons might choose to sacrifice other goods to fund their children’s education outside of the government system. For wealthy families, the choice might come easily; for most, the decision was difficult. The incentive to participate in the government system was strong, and genuine freedom in education remained an elusive ideal.

A Flawed System

We have thus come to the present, a hybrid system of private schools increasingly off-limits to the working and even middle classes and state schools plagued by inefficiencies, inequities, and in some cases, abject failure. By no means does this generalization denigrate the good work that thousands of educators in both private and public systems do every day. Some religious schools strive ardently to keep open the prospect of a first-rate education for students of poor parents and challenging backgrounds. Some public schools provide outstanding academic and extracurricular opportunities for their students. Yet, too many students are, despite political rhetoric and flawed legislation, “left behind.”

Conscientious parents naturally assert their freedom whenever given the opportunity. School district choice among public systems is extremely popular. Private school spots available through vouchers in locales such as Milwaukee, Cleveland, and Washington, D.C., have been grasped as quickly as they appear. Charter schools have exhibited some widely publicized hazards, but on the whole they have been successful, an affordable alternative to traditional public schools. Finally, an increasing number of parents have opted out of conventional educational models altogether: Some two million students were homeschooled in 2008.

Positive developments in the political and legal culture of education have permitted these exercises of liberty, resulting in tremendous gains in parent satisfaction, cost efficiency, and most importantly, student achievement. Still, old ways of thinking, archaic prejudices, and special interests remain formidable obstacles on the path to further progress. To encourage continued improvements in education—in whichever setting that may occur—parents must be granted greater control over and responsibility for their schooling choices. At its root, this means breaking the stranglehold on education dollars that government systems currently enjoy. It means returning control of that money to parents.

Obviously Catholic and other private schools stand to gain from such reform, but proposing it is far from special pleading. The appeal and urgency of school choice lies precisely in its implications for the common good of all children—regardless of religious persuasion or socio-economic status. Indeed, the exact outcome of extending educational freedom is hard to predict: that is the nature of freedom. What is certain is that the worst elements of the current state-run systems would not be tolerated, for no parent wants her child to fail.

Returning financial control to parents sets in motion a series of favorable developments: Parents demand excellence of the schools; administrators demand excellence of the teachers; students and teachers alike thrive on the fertilizer of high expectations. Parental financial control will generate an educational regime consistent with Catholic principles of subsidiarity and the primacy of the family, but it also coincides neatly with more broadly humane ideals of justice, hope, and freedom. The potential of parental responsibility and educational choice has already been demonstrated; it remains to enshrine these concepts in the nation’s culture and law.

Crisis and Opportunity in Catholic Schools

The school choice debate occurs in the context of a parochial school crisis. Despite a legacy of success, influence, and excellence, Catholic primary and secondary schools face unprecedented challenges. Enrollment figures are but one measure. From 2004 to 2007 alone, enrollment dropped by 160,000 students to 2.3 million.2 The decline has occurred while overall populations of Catholics and Americans have risen, reflecting the fact that the Catholic schools’ “market share” of the American student population has been sliced by more than half (from 12 percent to 5 percent) over the last thirty years. Catholic schools also face substantive criticisms from many sides, including interrogations concerning their orthodoxy, their academic quality, their commitment to diversity, and the moral caliber of their students and faculty.

Crisis is always at once a threat and an opportunity for effective action. Funding inequities and academic weakness in public schools have prompted calls for and openness to reform. Financial challenges in Catholic education have raised questions about their sustainability under changing circumstances. School choice is the key that will unlock solutions in both areas. By empowering parents to select schools according to mission and performance in the areas that they value, we will not only stabilize private schooling options but also encourage enhancement of their best features. Far from being a political sop to religious schools, however, educational freedom stands to benefit all children.

Various forms of school choice carry with them different risks and benefits. Especially in the current cultural and political climate, Catholic institutions cannot be too careful to safeguard the prerogatives of religious freedom against the dangers of encroachment by government regulators and courts. Done correctly, however, school choice will result in a more equitable distribution of resources—a system of schooling less stratified by class and more responsive to parental and student desires for safe and serious learning environments. If adequate educational opportunity is critical to the common good, then expanding school choice should be a priority.