U.S. public education became more diverse and inclusive in 1925

The Ku Klux Klan helped pass an amendment to the Oregon constitution in 1922 requiring that all students attend Protestant-controlled schools operated by local governments. The primary target of this amendment was Oregon’s Catholic community, although the Seventh-day Adventist, Episcopalian, Lutheran, and Jewish communities all the joined the Catholics in opposing the amendment in state and federal courts.

In its 1925 decision Pierce v. Society of Sisters, the US Supreme Court unanimously ruled this Oregon provision unconstitutional, writing that “The fundamental theory of liberty upon which all governments in this Union repose excludes any general power of the State to standardize its children by forcing them to accept instruction from public teachers only. The child is not the mere creature of the State; those who nurture him and direct his destiny have the right coupled with the high duty, to recognize, and prepare him for additional duties.”

Thanks to this decision, all students nationally can now satisfy their state’s mandatory school attendance law by attending private schools, public schools, or homeschools. The Florida constitution recognizes that public education today is broader than public schools, stating that: “Adequate provision shall be made by law for a uniform, efficient, safe, secure, and high quality system of free public schools…and other public education programs that the needs of the people may require.”

While American families’ freedom to attend government and nongovernment schools has been beyond dispute since 1925, state and local governments have not been required to provide the funding necessary to allow all families equal opportunity to exercise this freedom. This discriminatory funding practice undermines equal opportunity, which is one of public education’s core values.

Fortunately, recent U.S. Supreme Court decisions and state government policies have begun enabling families to use government funds to access all public education options, including homeschools, virtual schools, micro schools, hybrid schools, homeschool coops, and private schools.

Critics complain that allowing families to use taxpayer funds to access private and home schools undermines schools operated by local governments. But the best evidence we have refutes this claim. Independent researchers have found that when families gained access to public funding for private and homeschool education, the increased competition spurred Florida public schools to improve.

Critics also assert that families should not be empowered to use taxpayer funds to attend private and homeschools because these options are subject to fewer government regulations (i.e., less regulatory accountability). But these critics ignore the accountability that comes from consumer choice. Private schools may go out of business if they are not satisfying their customers. This is not true for public schools.

Finally, some critics assert that allowing families to spend taxpayer funds to attend private and homeschools is “privatizing” public education. I presume this means that the public good can only be served if children are educated in schools operated by the government. That was the position of the KKK in Oregon in 1922. But state governments regulate all public education options that families use to satisfy their state’s mandatory school attendance law. Those regulations are designed to ensure all public education options serve the public good. Critics may argue for additional or different regulations, but private and homeschool options are all government-regulated.

“Privatization” may also mean objecting to private businesses profiting from public education spending. But public education would not exist today without the products and services purchased from private and for-profit businesses. Private businesses build public schools. They also provide desks, computers, textbooks, paper, pencils, pens, busses, food, and collective bargaining services for teachers.

It has been almost one hundred years since the 1925 Pierce v. Society of Sisters decision expanded the definition of public education to include options beyond schools operated by local governments, and families in several states are starting to experience the freedoms and opportunities that decision enabled. Extending these freedoms and opportunities to all families nationally is a huge political and operational challenge, but it is also a moral and societal imperative.

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BY Doug Tuthill

A lifelong educator and former teacher union president, Tuthill has been president of Step Up For Students since August 2008.