Every Parent, Every Child: A Pastoral Statement on Parental Rights in Education

Published on September 3rd, 2002

A pastoral statement on parental rights in education by the Catholic Bishops of New York State

Children are our most precious gift and represent our greatest hope. Parents have a unique and primary responsibility in the rearing of children. By providing a loving home, instilling faith and values, and directing their children’s education, they are rendering an invaluable service both to their children and to the greater society.

Of course, parents must not shoulder this burden alone. Faith communities, government and schools all play significant roles and bear significant responsibilities for the development, protection and education of children. It is the parents, however, who are accountable in the end, and it is they who must be empowered to make the best decisions in the raising of their children, particularly when it comes to education.

In 1987, Pope John Paul II reminded a gathering of Catholic educators in New Orleans of how the Second Vatican Council articulated the central role of parents:
Since parents have conferred life on their children, they have a most solemn obligation to educate their offspring. Hence, parents must be acknowledged as the first and foremost educators of their children.” (Gravissimum Educationis, 3) “In comparison with the educational role of all others, their role is primary; it is also irreplaceable and inalienable. It would be wrong for anyone to attempt to usurp that unique responsibility. (cf. Familiaris Consortio, 36)

The recent decision by the United States Supreme Court affirming the legitimacy of programs aimed at allowing parents to direct their children’s education is a most welcome development. The case, Zelman v. Simmons-Harris, is important for the momentum of the parental rights movement and it lays to rest the argument of some that such programs are somehow unconstitutional. However, the decision is not surprising. The Court previously has acknowledged the central role of parents in the education and formation of their children. The Court’s unanimous decision in Pierce v. the Society of Sisters [268 US 510] struck down an Oregon law that would have required all parents to send their children to government schools. In this 1925 case, the Court agreed with the contention that the statute seriously abridged and impaired the very essence of personal liberty and freedom, stating:
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 obligations. (at 535)
Despite these affirmations of parental rights, many of today’s social policies often overlook, ignore and disrespect the role of the family. These policies and the political forces behind them often thwart the ability of parents to exercise their right to determine the best education for their children. Sadly, the poor and minority communities are disproportionately damaged by these policies.

As It Was in the Beginning
Our country’s founders, having come to this continent seeking religious freedom, established the foundation of freedom on which this nation was to grow. As expressed in our Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, religion and family values were integral parts of our nation’s early culture and were reflected in our social policies. Religious schools, which predate government-run schools, commonly received government aid. In fact, in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, the State of New York provided direct grants to a number of Catholic, Protestant, Jewish and other schools.

Today, almost every industrialized nation in the world provides either direct aid to religious schools or financial support to parents. The United States is a rare exception. Historians and legal scholars correctly remind us that it is only in our recent history that the establishment clause in the Bill of Rights has been misinterpreted in such a way as to limit or even prohibit government support of religion, or anything religious for that matter. The establishment clause was, in fact, intended to guard against the establishment of an official government religion and to protect religious practice from the intrusion of government.

Recent case law, however, suggests that the political and legal standard that espouses the free exercise and equal treatment of religion is re-emerging. We firmly believe that the inadequacies and injustices of the current educational system will continue to plague us, until parental rights in education are again recognized as part of that standard.

Every Parent – Every Child – Every School
All parents are endowed with the fundamental right and responsibility to direct their children’s education, regardless of whether they choose to send their children to a government, private or religious school. While parents have the right to choose a school for their child, only those families that secure a scholarship or have the financial means to pay tuition at a private, independent or religious school or to move to another school district can exercise that right. The state, our local communities, and indeed the Church have an obligation to empower and assist all parents in exercising this fundamental right.

While a system of parental choice and school competition would have a positive effect in improving schools, this argument is beside the point. The purpose of a system of parental choice is to enable parents – all parents – to exercise their inherent right and responsibility to direct the upbringing and education of their children. Even if all schools were high performing, the rationale for a system of parental choice remains. The freedom to choose the education best suited for one’s children is a basic right of all parents regardless of income. This includes parents living in poverty who have few, if any, options; parents of the working middle class who make financial sacrifices; and even parents with considerable financial resources.

The Government School Monopoly

Although the vast majority of parents in New York State and across the nation enroll their children in public schools, many would not do so if given a choice. Public school districts are actually government subdivisions set forth in state law. They are a function of local government and, as such, they are organized and managed as “government schools.” Moreover, the state compels parents to ensure that their children receive instruction. While this “compulsory education law” is intended to ensure that no child is denied an education, it essentially forces countless parents to send their children to schools not of their choosing. In this respect, this important decision is made for them, not by them.

Generally, children are well served in government schools and for that reason parents either do not perceive a lack of choice or have no motivation to voice a concern. However, government schools do not offer the kinds of values, including religious values, sought by many parents as part of their children’s education. Unless parents choose to educate their children at home or have the financial means to afford tuition at an alternative school, their children must attend a school that is determined by a system of state and local laws and policies.

Our state and nation are seeing a growing demand for educational liberty and a greater concern for the civil rights of parents and children to receive the best possible education in keeping with their respective needs. We see evidence of this in the charter school movement, because these schools offer additional opportunities for educational choice. Though charter schools are presented as an alternative to the traditional government schools, parents need to recognize that charter schools are also government schools and they may not be in the best interest, academically or otherwise, for their children. While charter schools may be an important first step, the fact remains that parents, regardless of income, have as much right to choose religious schools as they do government schools.

Like all government services, every aspect of government schools – from teacher salaries and textbooks to school bus transportation and school construction – is supported by tax dollars. The various teacher unions, as well as school boards which draw their financial support from tax dollars, are among the strongest and most powerful government school advocates. While these organizations serve an important role in representing the interests of their members, their political agenda often comes at the expense of children and families. It should be noted that the Bishops strongly support the rights of workers to organize. But on the local, state and national levels, the leadership of the teacher unions has led the resistance against many reform efforts designed to enable parents to choose the most appropriate schools for their children. They influence legislators not only through millions of dollars of direct contributions to political campaigns each year, but also through their own political activities designed to elect legislators who will support them and defeat those who will not.

Perpetuating a Cycle of Poverty
What is the cost of maintaining and supporting the government school system in its present form? Just ask a family living in poverty, whether in rural New York or in an inner city. Just ask a family from one of the many minority communities across the state. Or ask recent immigrants who might be reluctant to seek government services. Each will tell you that a quality education is the only way for their children to climb out of poverty, to rebuild their communities and to take their place in society as responsible and productive adults. In short, obtaining an education will guarantee them the same opportunities as any other American. Many of these families also will tell you that if they had the choice, they would choose a school other than the government school that their children are required to attend. Often these government schools are ones parents would otherwise avoid because their academic performance is questionable or even failing, they are devoid of the moral standards that are important to parents and, in some cases, they present a clear danger to the health and safety of children and teachers.

This statement by no means suggests a lack of support for the government-sponsored school system. On the contrary, we fully and enthusiastically support the system, which educates the vast majority of children, Catholic and non-Catholic alike. A strong government school system is in everyone’s best interest, and we recognize the good work of thousands of teachers and administrators in these schools, oftentimes under challenging conditions. But our education policymakers do society a disservice when they fail to recognize that what is truly in the best interest of children is not simply a strong government school system, but a strong educational system that includes government, religious and private schools.

The compulsory education law is intended to guarantee an educated citizenry, but without a system of parental choice, such a law does a grave disservice to parents, who have the right and responsibility to determine what is best for their children. Nowhere is this more evident than in impoverished and minority communities where, statistically, government schools are most likely to fail the children. The results of these failures are shattered dreams and unfulfilled human potential that has a corrosive effect on the family and a destructive impact on society.

The injustice of the present system is clearly understood by those most affected. Opinion surveys among poor and minority communities consistently demonstrate overwhelming support for taxpayer-supported programs to enable them to select a school for their children.

Parental Rights — More Than Vouchers
Much of the debate on parental choice has been framed in terms of vouchers. But vouchers represent only one of many possible ways to empower parents to select a school. Other options include tax credits and/or deductions, scholarships, grants and loans. While each of these possibilities works differently from vouchers, they all offer a means of redistributing the public’s tax dollars to provide families with the economic ability to obtain the education they desire for their children.

These options have been used widely for many years in enabling families and individuals to access a variety of services and programs including the ability to choose between government, private, independent and religious colleges, as well as day care services and housing programs. The government acknowledges its duty to provide the opportunity for choice in these areas. It stands to reason as well that it has the duty to ensure that parents have the means to exercise this same right on the elementary and secondary levels.

The Funding Inequities in Education
Total annual education spending in New York State is approximately $30 billion, more than $11,000 for each child in a government school. The bulk of these funds is raised through a combination of local property taxes and the state income tax. Some 500,000 children are enrolled in the state’s religious and independent schools. If their parents were to enroll their children in government schools, the cost to taxpayers would be an additional $5.5 billion operationally each year, not to mention the costs of new construction and capital repair. Parents who choose these schools save taxpayers billions of dollars each and every year. They do this despite the double burden of paying property taxes to support government schools as well as paying tuition at the school of their choice.

Many states, including New York, face litigation that challenges the equity of their education funding formulas. Given the glaring inequities here in New York, elected officials should fundamentally change the way the state finances education. In doing so, the state should make education funds available to all parents, thereby enabling them to select the school they determine most appropriate for their children, whether it is a government, religious, private or independent school. Such an initiative would give parents more of a stake in their children’s education.

The Practical Side of Parental Rights
Beyond having the financial means available to select a school for one’s child, a number of other considerations affect the choice parents make. Such considerations include the location, safety and cleanliness of the school; qualifications of teachers; soundness of the educational program; current instructional materials; religious formation; an environment conducive to all children learning; and availability of special services particular to the child’s needs.

As a result of advocacy efforts of the past, our state and federal representatives have addressed many of these issues by enacting a number of programs and services that benefit students in all schools. In New York State, for instance, all students regardless of the school they attend are entitled to some aid for textbooks, computer software, and library materials. Transportation services, albeit tragically and unfairly limited, are also available to most children. The state’s religious, private, and independent schools are also reimbursed for their expenses in complying with certain state mandates and participation in certain state programs. On the federal level, Congress has long recognized the wisdom of supporting all children and teachers. As a result, many federal programs benefit all equally. Most significant among these is the federal Title I program, which provides remedial education to needy students in government and religious schools alike.

While these and other services play an important role in the ability of parents to choose among schools, significant inequities remain in a number of key areas. Of particular concern are the needs of families who have children with disabilities and special academic needs. The federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act entitles children to special education. But these services are almost always provided exclusively within government schools. As a result, many families who have children with disabilities are effectively forced to send them to a government school – even if they would otherwise choose a religious education for their children.

This is also the case with parents whose children require remedial instruction. To the extent that the state’s academic standards and graduation requirements apply to all children, it is incumbent upon the state to ensure that all students have the resources and services to enable them to meet those standards. The same can be said in the area of educational technology. Because all students will be living and working in a world that is increasingly reliant on technology, it is imperative that all students have access to computers and other learning technologies. In this regard, we are very encouraged by the June, 2000 decision of the United States Supreme Court, in Mitchell v. Helms (98-1648) in which the Court upheld the constitutionality of making technology resources available to children in religious schools. This important decision recognizes that children should not be denied the advantages of technology simply because of the type of school they attend.

Another significant concern remains in the area of transportation. While New York State law requires that transportation services be provided to children who live up to 15 miles away from school, many parents who would otherwise select a private or religious school for their children live beyond this limit. This is particularly true in the state’s rural and suburban areas. These parents are effectively denied their right to choose a school for their children. The 15-mile transportation limit is an example of being penny wise and pound foolish. By attempting to save hundreds of dollars that would be the cost of transporting children to alternative schools, the state may be incurring thousands of dollars in additional costs to enroll these children in government schools.

The Challenge Ahead
The strength and diversity of our nation will always depend on a strong and diverse educational system. Not only do our government officials have a vested interest in ensuring that all schools remain strong, they have a moral obligation to ensure that all parents have access to the schools – including religious schools – best suited for their children.
The real barriers to parental rights in education, however, are political. Regrettably, many in public office have allowed political barriers to rise, and they are the ones who keep the barriers standing. These elected officials allow government school lobbyists to continue to obstruct initiatives designed to give parents the financial means to select a school of their choice.
Committed to upholding the rights of parents in the education of their children, the Bishops of New York State call upon all elected officials to:

  • establish programs such as tax credits, vouchers, and/or scholarships to ensure that all parents have the financial means to select the appropriate school for their children;
  • expand school bus mileage limits and reform transportation policies to ensure that all children are provided adequate and equitable transportation services;
  • provide sufficient and equitable resources for instructional materials, including computer and technological resources to all schools;
  • ensure that all instructional programs and services, including special education services, are adequately funded and are provided in the setting most appropriate for the children; and
  • enact teacher recruitment and training initiatives in such a way as to benefit all children.

We also call upon all Catholics to speak out, as followers of Christ, against the injustices imposed on individuals and families. The U.S. Catholic Bishops, in the 1999 document Faithful Citizenship: Civic Responsibility for a New Millennium urged all Catholics to be active in the political process.

In the Catholic tradition, responsible citizenship is a virtue; participation in the political process is a moral obligation. Every believer is called to faithful citizenship, to become an informed, active, and responsible participant in the political process.

We call for the creation of strategic alliances with members of all religious faiths, minority and ethnic communities, the business community, and others to speak with one voice to uphold the rights of parents and to bring about fundamental reform of our educational policies.

As the spiritual leaders of New York State’s 7.3 million Catholics, and as concerned citizens, we are compelled to speak out on public policies that affect human lives. We offer our comments and recommendations in a spirit of cooperation and good will. At the heart of our comments is the recognition that the family plays an essential and fundamental role in the development of a loving, stable and prosperous society. Only when the family is respected and supported in public policy, will we break the shackles of despair and fully realize the rights and freedoms endowed by our Creator and guaranteed by our Constitution.

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