The Fight for Educational Freedom

Matthew J. Brouillette, president of The Commonwealth Foundation, delivered the following remarks at The Heritage Foundation’s Resource Bank dinner in Chicago on May 29, 2004, in honor of Virginia Walden-Ford, recipient of the Salvatori Prize for American Citizenship for her decade of work and service in bringing hope and educational choice to Washington, D.C. children and parents.

Across the nation, the school choice debate is over. While we used to argue about whether or not parents should be able to choose the best school for their children, today we are arguing about “how much” and “how fast” choice should be expanded. The moral and legal barriers erected by those who would trap our children in unacceptable schools continue to fall.

The reality is that school choice is here to stay. The positive effects are simply too powerful to deny anymore. We will never go back to the restrictive “assignment system”-whereby we force children into a particular school because of where he or she lives.

But just over a decade ago, school choice discussions were little more than intellectual exercises. Today, they are informed by overwhelmingly positive evidence from children exercising choice in thousands upon thousands of charter schools, with tens of thousands of children using privately funded scholarships, and thousands more utilizing publicly funded vouchers.

Yet despite the demand for greater school choice, there are those who remain skeptical. I’m not talking about the knee-jerk opponents of school choice such as the labor unions-moral arguments and empirical evidence will never convince them-but I’m talking about the average citizen that fears that more school choice will somehow hurt rather than improve their local public school.

So while we’ve effectively won the school choice debate, unfortunately we still haven’t fully realized our final victory. Let me explain.

The challenge that remains for us is to reclaim the whole concept of Public Education. This idea was stolen from us and its current owners have turned the meaning on its head. What used to mean “the education of the public through diverse means” has become synonymous with the direct ownership, operation, and control of schooling by state and federal governments.

It hasn’t always been this way.

In fact, for the first 150 years of America’s settlement and the first 50 to 75 years of our nation’s existence, public education was achieved through independent, church-related, philanthropic, and community-sponsored schools. These schools were in essence what we call private schools today.

Yet despite a lack of government control of schooling, we know that the early American public was exceptionally literate and relatively well-educated. Nearly every child-including the poor-had access to some level of schooling. The major exceptions, of course, were those kept in government-sanctioned and government-protected chattel slavery.

Then-beginning in New England in the 1800s-a wave of change swept across this young nation. States began to abandon the original American model of decentralized, independent schools in favor of greater State control. It wasn’t a hostile takeover, but a persistent push for ever-increasing government involvement in schooling.

In 1841, Horrace Mann, the leader of the government school movement in Massachusetts, made a bold promise saying: “Let the common school be expanded to its capabilities, let it be worked with the efficiency of which it is susceptible, and nine tenths of the crimes in the penal code would become obsolete; the long catalogue of human ills will be abridged.”

As we continue to wait for government to usher in Horace Mann’s Educational Utopia, an honest look at the current school system should conclude that we have established a school system that clashes with the political, economic, social, and cultural traditions of the United States to an extent unparalleled by any other American institution.

Indeed, this fact once prompted the late American Federation of Teachers President Albert Shanker to say: “It’s time to admit that public education operates like a planned economy, a bureaucratic system in which everybody’s role is spelled out in advance and there are few incentives for innovation and productivity. It’s no surprise that our school system doesn’t improve: It more resembles the communist economy than our own market economy.”

Despite these stark contradictions, most Americans cling to the misconception that government must be involved in the education of our children. In fact, some would argue further that without government involvement in schooling, our nation itself would be threatened.

However, what few people recognize is how we Americans-without the help of government schooling-came to tame an unsettled continent and eventually establish the freest, most prosperous nation in the history of the world.

Yet the Founding Fathers were clearly educated men-and they certainly believed that to remain free, America must always have an educated citizenry. But the educated citizenry they envisioned-and what largely came to pass during their lifetimes-did not depend upon nor require that governments own or operate schools.

Nevertheless, today, nearly 90 percent of American children attend a government-run school. In the majority of states, parents who want a religious or non-government education for their children are financially penalized. They must pay taxes for schools they don’t use and pay again in tuition to schools that are actually educating their children.

Clearly, the goal of an educated public has given way to the establishment and protection of a monolithic system of government schools. Now, this is not to say that all of these schools are failing to teach our children to read, write, and figure.

But the facts are that children are slipping through the cracks in even the best government-run schools. Indeed, despite our best intentions, the reality is that no school-government, private, or religious-can be all things to all children. It’s simply impossible!

Just as one-size-fits-all shoes cannot fit all children’s feet, one-size-fits-all schools cannot fit all children’s learning needs. Yet this is precisely what the State expects. And it is precisely why we must reclaim the original concept of public education-that is, the education of the public.

Every child must have the option to choose a school that will best meet his or her academic, emotional, spiritual, and physical needs. The promise of public education will only be fulfilled if we return to parents the right, freedom, and flexibility to choose amongst a variety of schools-including government, charter, private, religious, and home schools.

But school choice reaches far beyond just education policy. Ultimately, educational freedom is at the heart and is the foundation of all the freedoms we enjoy in America.

Thomas Jefferson said it best when he remarked that “If a nation expects to be ignorant and free, in a state of civilization, it expects what never was and never will be.” In other words, we cannot long continue our ignorance and at the same time hope to maintain or even restore the Creator-given liberties that have been taken from us.

Yet the current government school system has successfully dumbed-down generations of children to the point that many of our fellow citizens don’t even realize how truly unfree they are today.

The Marxists in the America-yes, they are still alive and well in the West-have successfully infiltrated and gained control of our most important cultural institutions, particularly our schools.

While the Communists-in what would become the Soviet Union-attempted to seize power first, then impose a cultural revolution from above, the revolution in the United States has been more subtle yet remarkably more sinister and effective.

Instead of grabbing power like the Bolsheviks and then compelling the worship of the State, the government-run school system has effectively indoctrinated our society to the point where our freedoms are falling into the Marxists laps like ripened fruit. By capturing and politicizing our schools, the American citizenry willfully surrender their freedom to bigger, more intrusive government on a regular basis.

That is why these battles for school choice are so critically important. The fight for educational freedom is central to the larger war we are engaged in to defend and extend all of our liberties. Reclaiming how and where we educate our children is the foundation upon which we will build our future freedom. Unfortunately, without educational freedom, we will never be able to fully exercise and enjoy our God-given personal, economic, and religious liberties.

So tonight, we will be honoring a very special person with the Salvatori Prize for American Citizenship-someone who fully understands how important this battle for our future truly is.

Those of you who know Ginny’s story understand that she epitomizes the tenacity and passion that Samuel Adams was thinking of when he said, “It does not take a majority to prevail … but rather an irate, tireless minority, keen on setting brushfires of freedom in the minds of men.”

Educational choice is the spark that will light all other brushfires of freedom-and Virginia Walden-Ford certainly represents that irate, tireless minority.

Thank you, Ginny, for your perseverance and determination to prevail!

Chip Mellor, president of the Washington, D.C.-based Institute for Justice-the nation’s leading public interest law firm that victoriously litigated the Cleveland school voucher before the United States Supreme Court-gave remarks about Virginia Walden-Ford’s commitment and passion to freeing children trapped in some of the worst performing schools in the nation. The Honorable Edwin Meese, Heritage’s Ronald Reagan Distinguished Fellow in Public Policy, presented Mrs. Ford with the $25,000 Salvatori Prize for American Citizenship which was established to “recognize and reward extraordinary efforts by American citizens who help their communities solve problems the government has been unable or unwilling to solve.”