The public school system weighs on parents. It burdens them not simply with poor teaching and discipline, but with political bias, hostility toward religion, and now even sexual and racial indoctrination. Schools often seek openly to shape the very identity of children. What can parents do about it?
“I don’t think parents should be telling schools what they should teach,” Terry McAuliffe, the Democratic nominee for governor of Virginia, said in a Sept. 28 debate. The National School Boards Association seems to agree: In a Sept. 29 letter to President Biden, its leaders asked for federal intervention to stop “domestic terrorism and hate crimes” against public school officials. Attorney General Merrick Garland obliged, issuing an Oct. 4 memo directing law-enforcement agents and prosecutors to develop “strategies for addressing threats against school administrators, board members, teachers, and staff.”
Mr. Garland’s memo did acknowledge that “spirited debate about policy matters is protected under our Constitution.” That is true but doesn’t go nearly far enough. Education is mostly speech, and parents have a constitutional right to choose the speech with which their children will be educated. They therefore cannot constitutionally be compelled, or even pressured, to make their children a captive audience for government indoctrination.
Public education in America has always attempted to homogenize and mold the identity of children. Since its largely nativist beginnings around 1840, public education has been valued for corralling most of the poor and middle class into institutions where their religious and ethnic differences could be ironed out in pursuit of common “American” values.
The goal was not merely a shared civic culture. Well into the 20th century, much of the political support for public schooling was driven by a fear of Catholicism and an ambition to Protestantize Catholic children. Many Catholics and other minorities escaped the indoctrination of their children by sending them to private schools.
Nativists found that intolerable. Beginning around 1920, they organized to force Catholic children into public education. The success of such a measure in Oregon (with Democratic votes and Ku Klux Klan leadership) prompted the Supreme Court to hold compulsory public education unconstitutional.
The case, Pierce v. Society of Sisters (1925), was brought by a religious school, not a parent. The justices therefore framed their ruling around the threat to the school’s economic rights. But Pierce says that parents can educate their children outside state schools in accord with the parents’ moral and religious views.
Although the exact nature of this parental freedom is much disputed, it is grounded in the First Amendment. When religious parents claim the freedom, religious liberty seems an especially strong foundation. But the freedom of parents in educating their children belongs to all parents, not only the faithful. Freedom of speech more completely explains this educational liberty.
Education consists mostly in speech to and with children. Parents enjoy freedom of speech in educating their children, whether at home or through private schooling. That is the principle underlying Pierce, and it illuminates our current conundrum.
The public school system, by design, pressures parents to substitute government educational speech for their own. Public education is a benefit tied to an unconstitutional condition. Parents get subsidized education on the condition that they accept government educational speech in lieu of home or private schooling.
There is nothing unconstitutional about taxation in support of government speech. Thus taxpayers have no generic right against public-school messages they find objectionable.
But parents are in a different situation. They aren’t merely subsidizing speech they find objectionable. They are being pushed into accepting government speech for their children in place of their own. Government requires parents to educate their children and offers education free of charge. For most parents, the economic pressure to accept this educational speech in place of their own is nearly irresistible.
To be sure, Pierce doesn’t guarantee private education. It merely acknowledges the right of parents to provide it with their own resources. And one may protest that economic pressure is not force. But the Supreme Court has often ruled otherwise.
Merely denying a government benefit will often suffice to violate a right—as when government refuses a benefit without a hearing (Goldberg v. Kelly, 1970), denies a grant on account of the recipient’s religious beliefs (Trinity Lutheran v. Comer, 2017), or subsidizes a media organization on the condition that it refrain from editorializing (FCC v. League of Women Voters, 1984). Financial pressures clearly count.
When government makes education compulsory and offers it free of charge, it crowds out parental freedom in educational speech. The poorer the parents, the more profound the pressure—and that is by design. Nativists intended to pressure poor and middle-class parents into substituting government educational speech for their own, and their unconstitutional project largely succeeded.
Most parents can’t afford to turn down public schooling. They therefore can’t adopt speech expressive of their own views in educating their children, whether by paying for a private school or dropping out of work to home-school. So they are constrained to adopt government educational speech in place of their own, in violation of the First Amendment.
A long line of Establishment Clause decisions recognize the risk of coercion in public-school messages. In Grand Rapids School District v. Ball (1985), the high court condemned private religious teaching in rooms leased from public schools. “Such indoctrination, if permitted to occur, would have devastating effects on the right of each individual voluntarily to determine what to believe (and what not to believe) free of any coercive pressures from the State,” Justice William Brennan wrote for the majority.
Coercion seemed central in such cases because of the vulnerability of children to indoctrination. Summarizing the court’s jurisprudence, Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, concurring in Wallace v. Jaffree (1985), observed that “when government-sponsored religious exercises are directed at impressionable children who are required to attend school, . . . government endorsement is much more likely to result in coerced religious beliefs.”
These precedents concern only religion in public schools and the coercive effect on children under the Establishment Clause. But the danger of coerced belief is not confined to official religious speech. Subjecting children to official political, racial, sexual and antireligious speech can be equally coercive. And if public-school messages are so coercive against children, it is especially worrisome that parents are being pressured to adopt public educational speech in place of their own.
Rights are “exceptions” to power, James Madison observed. That is, rights defeat power. But contemporary judicial doctrine allows power to defeat rights—at least when government asserts what is called a compelling interest. One might think that a state’s compelling interest in public education overpowers any parental speech right. Yet because such analysis allows power to subdue rights, it is important to evaluate whether the claimed government interest is really compelling.
The U.S. was founded in an era when almost all schooling was private and religious, and that already suggests that any government interest in public education is neither necessary nor compelling. Further, the idea that public education is a central government interest was popularized by anti-Catholic nativists. Beginning in the mid-19th century, they elevated the public school as a key American institution in their campaign against Catholicism.
In their vision, public schools were essential for inculcating American principles so that children could become independent-minded citizens and thinking voters. The education reformer and politician Horace Mann said that without public schools, American politics would bend toward “those whom ignorance and imbecility have prepared to become slaves.”
That sounds wholesome in the abstract. In practice, it meant that Catholics were mentally enslaved to their priests, and public education was necessary to get to the next generation, imbuing them with Protestant-style ideas so that when they reached adulthood, they would vote more like Protestants.
This goal of shaping future voters gave urgency to the government’s interest in public education. As today, the hope was to liberate children from their parents’ supposedly benighted views and thereby create a different sort of polity. Now as then, this sort of project reeks of prejudice and indoctrination. There is no lawful government interest in displacing the educational speech of parents who don’t hold government-approved views, let alone in altering their children’s identity or creating a government-approved electorate.
The inevitably homogenizing, even indoctrinating, effect of public schools confirms the danger of finding a compelling government interest in them. A 1904 nativist tract grimly declared that the public school is “a great paper mill, into which are cast rags of all kinds and colors, but which lose their special identity and come out white paper, having a common identity. So we want the children of the state, of whatever nationality, color or religion, to pass through this great moral, intellectual and patriotic mill, or transforming process.”
The idea of a common civic culture among children is appealing when it develops voluntarily, but not when state-approved identities and messages are “stamped upon their minds,” as the 1904 tract put it. Far from being a compelling government interest, the project of pressing children into a majority or government mold is a path toward tyranny.
The shared civic culture of 18th-century America was highly civilized, and it developed entirely in private schools. The schools, like the parents who supported them, were diverse in curriculum and their religious outlook, including every shade of Protestantism, plus Judaism, Catholicism, deism and religious indifference.
In their freedom, the 18th-century schools established a common culture. In contrast, public-school coercion has always stimulated division. It was long used to grind down the papalism of Catholic children into something more like Protestantism. Since then, there has been a shift in the beliefs that public schools seek to eradicate. But the schools remain a means by which some Americans force their beliefs on others. That’s why they are still a source of discord. The temptation to indoctrinate the children of others—to impose a common culture by coercion—is an obstacle to working out a genuine common culture.
There is no excuse for maintaining the nativist fiction that public schools are the glue that hold the nation together. They have become the focal point for all that is tearing the nation apart. However good some public schools may be, the system as a whole, being coercive, is a threat to our ability to find common ground. That is the opposite of a compelling government interest.
The public school system therefore is unconstitutional, at least as applied to parents who are pressured to abandon their own educational speech choices and instead adopt the government’s.
Parents should begin by asking judges to recognize—at least in declaratory judgments—that the current system is profoundly unconstitutional. Once that is clear, states will be obliged to figure out solutions. Some may choose to offer tax exemptions for dissenting parents; others may provide vouchers. Either way, states cannot deprive parents of their right to educational speech by pushing children into government schools.
Judges will be reluctant to vindicate the uncomfortable truth that education is mostly speech. Many have assimilated the nativist ideal that public education is a central and compelling government interest. As in 1925, however, the threat to parental speech has become unbearable.