A Parent’s Right To Choose a School

We have a group of students, parents, grandparents, and staff in Washington, D.C. this week seeing sites and learning about U.S. history. They have been to the notable historical sites of Jamestown, Colonial Williamsburg, and of course, D.C. itself. Our freedoms as individuals are well established, going back to our country’s founding days. But what about the freedom of parents to select the school they want for their children?

A hundred years ago, this freedom that had always been the practice in the United States was jeopardized by a new law in Oregon. The problem arose when the state passed a referendum that amended the state’s Compulsory Education Act. It required that beginning September 1, 1926, with few exceptions, all children would have to attend the state’s public schools. Make no mistake, this was an attempt to make it the state’s duty to control the education of all children in the state. One of the state’s attorneys went so far as to call Oregonian students “the State’s children.”

This statute put in jeopardy a parent’s right to select the education of their choice for their children. Two groups sued, Hill Military Academy and the Society of Sisters, which maintained a Catholic school. They sought an injunction against the act alleging that they were being denied their property rights as protected by the 14th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. The Society of Sisters also protested on religious grounds. The 14th Amendment reads, “No state shall deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law…”

The attorneys for the private schools argued that they were not contesting the right of the state to monitor their children’s education, only its right to absolute control of their choice of educational system. The private schools won the first round of litigation before a three-judge panel of the Oregon District Court, which granted an injunction against the Act. Of course, it did not end there because the defendant, the State of Oregon, appealed the decision directly to the U.S. Supreme Court.

The Supreme Court unanimously affirmed the previous court’s decision making the new law illegal. The court wrote that “…children were not the “mere creatures of the state” and that by its very nature, the traditional American understanding of the term liberty prevented the state from forcing students to accept instruction only from public schools. This responsibility belonged to the child’s parents or guardians, and the ability to make such a choice was a “liberty” protected by the 14th Amendment.” Making it clearer, they wrote, “The fundamental theory of liberty…excludes any general power of the state to standardize its children by forcing them to accept instruction from public teachers only,”

The U.S. Supreme Court delivered this verdict in 1925 and is known as Pierce v. Society of Sisters. This established for all time the principle that private schools have a legal right to exist in all 50 states. If the decision had gone against these schools Grace Academy would not exist and all our students would be subject to the whims of the state. Our families are here because they do not want what the state is offering, and it is our privilege to give an alternative. This is a precious right that we treasure.