School Choice for Whom: Government or Parents?

Ed and Becky Kohlhoff live in Bridgeport Township, Michigan, but took advantage of Michigan’s schools of choice program this fall to send their young sons to North Elementary School in the neighboring Birch Run school district. It was a decision that would soon be denied, underscoring the need for changes that expand educational choice for Michigan families beyond the government school system.

While the Kohlhoffs live close to the line dividing the two Saginaw County school systems, they chose Birch Run schools because both parents work and the children’s grandparents, who live close to North Elementary, could care for the boys after school. The Kohlhoffs’ oldest son, Ryan, has attended Birch Run Schools since 1996 and his four-year-old brother, Justin, began kindergarten this past August.

Because of crowded classrooms, the Birch Run Board of Education decided earlier this year to no longer participate in the schools of choice program. Nevertheless, the Kohlhoffs were assured that because Justin has a brother in the school, he would be allowed to attend Birch Run—provided that the Bridgeport school board would release both him and the money the district receives to educate him.

Nearly a month into the school year, Bridgeport refused to release little Justin and he had to leave Birch Run and start over in Bridgeport. Heartbroken, Justin’s mother cried during the school board meeting that determined his fate and the four-year-old undoubtedly found it difficult to acclimate a second time to new classmates and surroundings. Parents were put on notice that in practice, it is government and not the family that ultimately directs the education of their young.

Responding to the Kohlhoffs and the press, Bridgeport school board president Gerardo Gonzalez stated that other families are in the same situation. If the school board accommodated one family, he said, they might have to release another eight students as well.

In fact, when it suits the education bureaucracy, school boards throughout the nation frequently exercise the very choices they deny to parents when they "make exceptions" and send difficult special education cases they can not, or do not wish to, serve to private, for-profit institutions. When a school board can for its own reasons elect to send a child elsewhere yet deny that right to parents, one wonders why the fast-growing movement for parental rights and school choice has been so long in coming.

In the 1920s, when the Ku Klux Klan’s power was at its zenith in the United States, a number of states where the Klan was active—including Michigan—attempted to ban all private and parochial schools. The idea was that immigrant, Catholic, and Jewish children could best be "Americanized" in the government-run schools. When Oregon actually imposed a ban on all but the government’s own schools, its Compulsory Education Act was challenged in the U. S. Supreme Court. Asked to determine who ultimately has responsibility for the education of children, parents or the state, the Court was unequivocal. It said, "The fundamental theory of liberty upon which all governments of this Union rest excludes any general power of the State to standardize its children. . . . The child is not the mere creature of the State; those who nurture him and direct his destiny have the right, coupled with the high duty, to recognize and prepare him for additional obligations."

However, parents unable to pay both school taxes and tuition in an alternative school often learn that the government school bureaucracy, protective of its power and funding, will disregard the primary rights of parents, common sense, and decency when its financial interests and authority are threatened. The system the Kohlhoffs encountered may not ally itself with 1920s Klan-style thinking to ensure its power and influence, but it is a system that nevertheless often puts its interests above those it is supposed to serve.

Large, centralized and bureaucratic systems and the school employee unions that share a symbiotic relationship with them have resisted government school choice and charter schools, and they certainly oppose providing parents with the added choices of private and parochial schools. They know that if they acquiesce to the interests of even one little four-year-old, they might have to do so for untold other citizens.

The school board in Bridgeport, like so many other school boards, too often looks out for the interests of the system before the interests of families and children. Union-influenced or controlled school boards have strong incentives to carefully guard the salaries, perquisites, and privileges of those employed by the system. But who, if not his own parents, will look out for the best interests of Justin?