October 25, 2021

PHIL HAMBURGER: Is the Public School System Constitutional? Education consists mostly in speech, and parents have a right under the First Amendment to exercise authority over what their children hear.

The public school system weighs on parents. It burdens them not simply with poor teaching and discipline, but with political bias, hostility toward religion, and now even sexual and racial indoctrination. Schools often seek openly to shape the very identity of children. What can parents do about it?

“I don’t think parents should be telling schools what they should teach,” Terry McAuliffe, the Democratic nominee for governor of Virginia, said in a Sept. 28 debate. The National School Boards Association seems to agree: In a Sept. 29 letter to President Biden, its leaders asked for federal intervention to stop “domestic terrorism and hate crimes” against public school officials. Attorney General Merrick Garland obliged, issuing an Oct. 4 memo directing law-enforcement agents and prosecutors to develop “strategies for addressing threats against school administrators, board members, teachers, and staff.”

Mr. Garland’s memo did acknowledge that “spirited debate about policy matters is protected under our Constitution.” That is true but doesn’t go nearly far enough. Education is mostly speech, and parents have a constitutional right to choose the speech with which their children will be educated. They therefore cannot constitutionally be compelled, or even pressured, to make their children a captive audience for government indoctrination.

Public education in America has always attempted to homogenize and mold the identity of children. Since its largely nativist beginnings around 1840, public education has been valued for corralling most of the poor and middle class into institutions where their religious and ethnic differences could be ironed out in pursuit of common “American” values.

The goal was not merely a shared civic culture. Well into the 20th century, much of the political support for public schooling was driven by a fear of Catholicism and an ambition to Protestantize Catholic children. Many Catholics and other minorities escaped the indoctrination of their children by sending them to private schools.

Nativists found that intolerable. Beginning around 1920, they organized to force Catholic children into public education. The success of such a measure in Oregon (with Democratic votes and Ku Klux Klan leadership) prompted the Supreme Court to hold compulsory public education unconstitutional.

The case, Pierce v. Society of Sisters (1925), was brought by a religious school, not a parent. The justices therefore framed their ruling around the threat to the school’s economic rights. But Pierce says that parents can educate their children outside state schools in accord with the parents’ moral and religious views. . . .

The public school system, by design, pressures parents to substitute government educational speech for their own. Public education is a benefit tied to an unconstitutional condition. Parents get subsidized education on the condition that they accept government educational speech in lieu of home or private schooling.

There is nothing unconstitutional about taxation in support of government speech. Thus taxpayers have no generic right against public-school messages they find objectionable.

But parents are in a different situation. They aren’t merely subsidizing speech they find objectionable. They are being pushed into accepting government speech for their children in place of their own. Government requires parents to educate their children and offers education free of charge. For most parents, the economic pressure to accept this educational speech in place of their own is nearly irresistible.

He’s got a point, you know.

Plus: “The U.S. was founded in an era when almost all schooling was private and religious, and that already suggests that any government interest in public education is neither necessary nor compelling. Further, the idea that public education is a central government interest was popularized by anti-Catholic nativists. Beginning in the mid-19th century, they elevated the public school as a key American institution in their campaign against Catholicism. . . . Far from being a compelling government interest, the project of pressing children into a majority or government mold is a path toward tyranny. The shared civic culture of 18th-century America was highly civilized, and it developed entirely in private schools. The schools, like the parents who supported them, were diverse in curriculum and their religious outlook, including every shade of Protestantism, plus Judaism, Catholicism, deism and religious indifference.”

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