Of all the important and interesting policy areas I work on, none is more personal than education.
Education issues have always held a particular interest for me. This interest has been greatly influenced by my own experience growing up, and now by experiences my wife and I have had with our three children’s education.
Growing up, we moved a lot. My dad was in the restaurant business, and every few years it was on to a new and, most often, better opportunity for our family. With each move, my parents had to select where to live and which school I would attend. They had options from which to make choices. Sometimes it was a Catholic school, and sometimes it was a public school. Where I went to school always played a part in which area of the new city they chose to live. No matter where we eventually settled, they would find an area that had a good school.
When it came time for my wife and me to send our first child to school, we did some research. We attended open houses, talked to friends and neighbors, and looked into all our options in the area, including the public, charter and private schools. We live in an area that has great options for all three, an embarrassment of riches as education goes. After much discussion, prayer and discernment, we made our choice — a choice based on what we wanted for our children and what best fit our family’s all-around education needs. It wasn’t the newest school, the biggest school or even the most well-funded school, but it was the best school for our kids.
My parents had choices, my wife and I had choices. Yet for tens of thousands of families in Minnesota, there are no choices. At a Latino education summit I attended, the Minnesota commissioner of education, Brenda Cassellius, stated that Minnesota was No. 1 in the nation for providing school choice. She said we have great public, private, charter and homeschool options. Yes, commissioner, we do have “options” in our state, but options don’t equal choices. An option is something that exists; a choice is something you have the ability to make.
For too many in our state — especially those who live in minority communities, disadvantaged neighborhoods or many rural communities, and for families who are struggling economically — there is only one option.
Therefore, there is no choice. Many parents are forced to send their children to the local school that might be failing to educate their child or meet their needs as parents. Those parents feel trapped and are unable to fulfill their responsibility as the first educators of their children. Catholic social teaching is clear on this: Parents are the first educators of their children and therefore, must have choices to appropriately address their educational needs.
In Blessed Pope Paul VI’s “Declaration on Christian Education,” he states:
“Parents who have the primary and inalienable right and duty to educate their children must enjoy true liberty in their choice of schools.
Consequently, the public power, which has the obligation to protect and defend the rights of citizens, must see to it, in its concern for distributive justice, that public subsidies are paid out in such a way that parents are truly free to choose according to their conscience the schools they want for their children.”
Parental choice in education is important because no one knows a child better than his or her parent. No one else should be able to judge better on a daily basis if their child is learning. No one should know better what their child is going through at school or if their education needs — no matter what they are — are being met.
A parent has to have the ability to say, “This school isn’t the best fit for my child and I need to make a different choice.” But if no opportunity for choice exists, it doesn’t matter what the parent knows or thinks; they are rendered powerless. And no parent should have to feel that way when it comes to their child’s future.
Through legislation, such as an Opportunity Tax Credit Scholarship bill, parents would have the ability to take advantage of actual options and make a real choice. In the next “Faith in the Public Arena” column, I will address in more detail what some of these legislative solutions might look like.
Peterson is the associate policy director of the Minnesota Catholic Conference.