Debbie Lannaman and her 8-year-old daughter, Chelsea, live in Harlem, a legendary New York City neighborhood with 10 public elementary schools. To each of these schools Ms. Lannaman gives an F. The failures in these cases are not the fault of the teachers, who are front-line troops doing the best they can. The schools are in trouble because so many of the families on Harlem’s mean streets are in trouble—suffering from the combination of social and economic miseries that plagues inner cities nationwide.
All the same, Ms. Lannaman’s complaints are justified. Zoning rules require Chelsea to attend Public School 125 where, according to her mother, no education is going on. “At P.S. 125,” Ms. Lannaman told a New York Post reporter a few weeks ago, “practically all the students are below standards, and the entire building needs remediation.”
Bureaucracies do not intimidate Ms. Lannaman. After the first day of school earlier this month, she decided to withdraw her daughter from class and teach her at home until she was given a transfer to a better school outside Harlem. This was not revolt. Ms. Lannaman was only aiming to exercise a choice supposedly guaranteed her by No Child Left Behind, the education bill that President Bush signed on Jan. 8.
Buried in the 1,200 pages of this law, which is the latest reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965, is an item that public school superintendents probably hope families will not notice. This rule says children in public schools that are well below standards must be given the option of transferring to a school that is not failing and must be provided with transportation to that better school.
So far, that enlightened directive has proved to be largely an illusion. Even though relatively few of the approximately 3.5 million children who find themselves stuck in failing schools have attempted to use this option, those who did try have often been told that no vacant seats are available in the schools to which they want to transfer.
Debbie Lannaman had just this exasperating experience. She was told that none of the districts outside Harlem to which she hoped her daughter might transfer had vacant places. Chelsea’s story, however, has had a happy ending. A select private school on Manhattans’s East Side has given her a full-tuition scholarship.
But if Chelsea’s problem has been solved, certain basic questions raised by what The Post called a mother’s boycott remain. How are parents’ rights to supervise their children’s education to be balanced with civil society’s right to make sure all children are adequately schooled? And which right comes first?
Those questions do not arise on frontiers where there are no schools. In 1671 William Berkeley, the royal governor of Virginia, was asked by London what provision the colony made for education. He replied: “The same course that is taken in England out of towns; every man according to his ability instructing his children.”
Parents indeed have both the right and the obligation to educate their children; but in a complex, industrialized and sophisticated society, they can hardly do this without the help of schools. In the United States, two parallel systems, the public and the private, provide these schools; but that does not mean that the family has lost all autonomy or been bumped down a notch.
This was the essential point underlying the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in the famous Oregon case—Pierce v. Society of Sisters. The Oregon voters adopted in 1922 an initiative that would have required almost all children between the ages of 8 and 16 to attend public schools; private schools, whether religious or nonsectarian, were in effect outlawed. In 1925 a unanimous court declared this proposal unconstitutional.
In his opinion for the court, Justice James Clark McReynolds said in part that the Act of 1922 “unreasonably interferes with the liberty of parents and guardians to direct the upbringing and education of children under their control.... 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.”
Although this decision dealt explicitly with a narrowly defined issue—the constitutionality of the Oregon Act—it not only recognized the family’s right to educate but implicitly put it ahead of the state in at least some instances.
There is a truth here worth keeping in sight during the debates about school vouchers. When political society enters the field of education, it finds the family already there; so its first work is to help parents do theirs.