In a landmark case almost a century ago, the United States Supreme Court issued a decision that found it was constitutional for states to compel children to attend school, but unconstitutional to require children be taught exclusively by state employees in state institutions.
The Court’s action in Pierce v. Society of Sisters was a response to the narrative of a growing national movement that would permit a state to direct the education of “its children” to best serve the interests of children and the public good. Those who supported the movement believed a standardized education, presented in the context of a common belief system and offered without charge, could serve not only children, but an increasingly diverse nation.
The case was brought in reaction to a compulsory attendance law to be enacted in the state of Oregon that would prohibit enrollment outside the state’s system, directly affecting the decisions of parents and families.
In its ruling, the Court found the state of Oregon’s action interfered in a relationship more foundational than the one between the child and state—the relationship of a parent and their child. The Court found the public good and a civil society could not be accomplished by undermining a role primary to its creation—the right and responsibility of parents to direct something as consequential to the future of their child as their education. Destabilizing those family relationships could have consequences far into the future.
The Court’s action in Pierce applied to a parent’s access to both faith-based and non-denominational alternatives to state institutions. Beyond an outright ban on enrolling students in schools outside the system, the Court addressed the state’s ability to undermine the status of those schools through other means of unconstitutional interference. Those might not appear as aggressive, but would ultimately limit a parent’s ability to exercise a choice of options for their child, nonetheless.
In this century the details have changed—some dramatically—but the core issues remain. There are parents who do not believe the education offered by state institutions will meet the needs of their child or they have issues with the belief system that runs through its teaching.
Today those parents face the challenge of an institution of public education that has grown to a size and scale in the past 50 years that few of its supporters could have imagined when Pierce was decided. The current state system is vast, dedicated not only to education, but administration, employing millions of men and women across the nation. It has become an established presence in the lives of its students far beyond the conventional school day, with services that extend into the day and year and increasingly into early childhood.
The cost of the state system has also escalated dramatically, which has direct consequences for schools outside the public sector, as it has driven costs for their programs as well, but without access to the funding available to their public counterparts. This can easily make it a practical impossibility to offer an education that can be a reasonable alternative for most parents. This is felt most by lower-income and, increasingly, middle-income families, groups that express the highest level of support for education choices but have the least opportunity for access.
We believe the lessons and message of Pierce resonate today. The state and the parent are not adversaries in the realm of education unless the state oversteps its authority, and in that event, the law is on the side of the primacy of the relationship of a parent and child. It is there the authority ultimately resides, and education choices should reflect the goals and aspirations of parents for their children as much as the interests of any other. Whether a state’s policies create substantial obstacles for families attempting to enter the system or leave it, or prevent parents from participating in the establishment of legitimate education alternatives, all are of a theme.
The state and parents are vital partners in the common mission of education. We believe a balance of their interests—many shared—, when properly struck, serves that mission to the benefit of the entire community.