CCCG Faculty Fellow Engages in Contemporary School Choice Debates

Author: Center for Citizenship & Constitutional Government

The Case for Parental Choice book cover

Professor Richard W. Garnett, the Paul J. Schierl/Fort Howard Corporation Professor of Law at Notre Dame Law School (NDLS), Director of the Notre Dame Program on Church, State & Society, and faculty fellow of the Center for Citizenship and Constitutional Government has recently engaged in invaluable work on parental choice and educational policy. 

Professor Garnett has been involved in educational reform and parental choice issues for most of his professional career, engaging in the early school-choice litigation in the late 1990s regarding state policies that excluded religious schools from public tuition programs. 

Professor Garnett and his wife, Nicole, who is the John P. Murphy Foundation Professor of Law at NDLS, recently published an op-ed in the Manhattan Institute's City Journal that outlines the history of the parental choice movement, highlights the work of John E. Coons in this movement for the past sixty years, and discusses recent legislative developments implementing education savings account (ESA) programs in the past few weeks. 

ESA programs provide each child with a certain dollar amount reserved for education expenses, even private school tuition. Currently, Iowa, Utah, Arizona, and West Virginia have such programs in place, with more states expected in the near future.

The Garnetts’ report on the “revolution [that] is underway in American education” as citizens and legislators across the country have embraced a public education that is “not about school systems but rather the empowerment of parents and the flourishing of children.” 

Parental choice programs, in comparison to traditional “school choice” programs, are “catalysts for real-world education pluralism and diversity, giving parents the option of using the public dollars allocated for their children’s education not only for tuition but also … for homeschooling, tutoring, and education therapies.”

Both Garnetts, along with Notre Dame professor Ernest Morrell, have edited a collection of essays by John Coons entitled The Case for Parental Choice, which will be published by Notre Dame Press. 

John Coons, Berkeley Professor of Law Emeritus, was the first to develop the “social justice” case for school choice. He has written extensively over the past 50 years about the imperative that parents, particularly of poor families, have the right to decide which principles are passed on to their children in their education. “Raising our children to represent our own values is the most important form of speech most of us will ever experience,” he wrote in First Things

America’s current education system allows wealthier families to choose how and where to educate their children, thus essentially choosing which values, religion, and ideas they wish to pass on to them. Poorer families, meanwhile, are left in school districts where educational quality corresponds with the zip code of the house that family can afford — what Coons calls “financial exclusivity."

In the past, advocates focused on the economic benefits of educational choice: increased test scores, greater attendance, and higher graduation rates. But Coons’ arguments center around the larger reasons for believing in choice: “Shifting educational authority from government to parents is a policy that rests upon basic beliefs about the dignity of the person, the rights of children, and the sanctity of the family.” 

Professor Garnett emphasizes Coons’ point: “Parents know their children better.” 

“Government monopolies are rarely effective,” Professor Garnett says. “When it comes to public education, the point should not be to benefit government employees or to maintain public buildings; it should be to empower families and to educate kids. Pluralism, not homogeneity, is what the educational sector needs. We know that education happens in all kinds of contexts, not just in publicly owned buildings. School choice facilitates competition, experimentation, diversity, and freedom.”

When asked about the connection of his work with parental choice and his position at Notre Dame, Professor Garnett said that Notre Dame’s Catholic character and commitment to Catholic K-12 education elucidates the “clear mission fit with advocacy and litigation on behalf of educational opportunity and parental choice.” 

“A core teaching in Catholic Social Thought is that parents are the primary educators of their children and that governments should support parents' ability to choose schools that align with their faith. Notre Dame aims to be a force for good in the world, and it is clear that reducing the effects of income and wealth on educational choice and opportunity is a way to fulfill this goal,” Professor Garnett says.

Garnett, a parent of four, understands that Catholic schools make a vital contribution “to civil society and to the health of our constitutional democracy.” He believes that public education should empower and trust parents, showing them respect for the decisions they make in regard to their children’s schooling.

“The project of constitutional government depends crucially on the formation of civic-minded [...] members of the political community. If we tell parents that officials know better than they do where their kids will flourish, we send a demeaning message that can only discourage full engagement in public life,” Garnett argues.

The Case for Parental Choice will be available from Notre Dame Press in March. 

Article contributed by CCCG Writing Fellow Merlot Fogarty.