The school choice policies sweeping the nation may be among the most innovative—and promising—enacted in recent memory. Yet they also embody a return to principles first enshrined in American law nearly 400 years ago.
In 1642, when the Massachusetts Bay Colony crafted the nation’s first education law, its objective was clear: Parents must educate their children.
Echoing Moses’ exhortation to Israelite parents to teach their children and their children’s children the statutes and decrees of the Lord, the law recognized not just the grave importance of a good education, “of singular behoof and benefit to any Common-wealth,” but how parents are uniquely positioned to deliver this benefit.
Education entails more than preparation for the workforce, after all. It entails the cultivation of virtue, both intellectual and moral. To educate children in this way, to form their minds and shape their souls, demands knowledge of their souls—which is to say it requires love. And no one loves a child more than his or her parents.
“Consider how much the dignity and happiness of your children both in time and in eternity, depend upon your care and fidelity,” Founding-era preacher Nathanael Emmons reminded Massachusetts parents nearly a century after the first education law passed. “And let the ties of nature, the authority of God, and your own solemn vows, engage you … to cultivate and embellish their opening minds in every branch of useful and ornamental knowledge.”
In keeping with these natural ties, the 1642 law charged parents—not state bureaucrats—with the duty to ensure that their children learn not only how to provide for themselves, whether through farming or some other trade, but also how to think for themselves, which requires the literacy skills necessary to read and understand texts of history, law, religion, and philosophy, among others.
Should parents neglect this natural duty, the Massachusetts law continued, they would face legal consequences, incurring fines for initial offenses. Prolonged negligence, however, would up the ante. Children whose parents refused to educate them would be placed with government-appointed teachers.
Such was the pedagogical vision of our nation’s earliest lawmakers. Education begins in the home, with parents possessing both the right and the responsibility to direct their children’s education. Only exceptional circumstances would warrant governmental intrusion into this emphatically familial affair.
In this, the Massachusetts colonists’ 17th-century education policies embodied the truth that human law ought to reflect and assist the natural law, rather than seek to undermine or replace it.
As future President Calvin Coolidge reminded another set of Massachusetts lawmakers in 1914, almost three centuries later: “Men do not make laws. They do but discover them.”
The law ought not to supplant parents in their natural role as primary educators of their children, then, but to encourage and, where possible, facilitate this noble endeavor.
For too long, however, modern lawmakers and administrators have perverted this natural order, insisting on government-run schooling as the rule, rather than the exception, while suppressing parental involvement and stigmatizing home-based education as backward.
Thanks to the school choice movement’s tireless efforts, in several states those days finally are coming to an end.
Among the cutting-edge tools employed in the movement’s fight for education freedom are universal education savings accounts or ESA-style options, which allocate a portion of a school district’s per-pupil spending to an account that parents then may use for their children’s education. Although vouchers must be used for tuition, ESAs may be used for other educational expenses as well, including home-schooling materials, individual classes, personal tutors, special needs therapy, and more.
As universal policies, these accounts are available to all K-12 students in states that have embraced them, regardless of income level. They also permit parents to save unused funds from year to year, encouraging a fiscal responsibility that ever has eluded government-run schools.
Add to the universal ESA programs now live in nine states (and counting) the curriculum transparency laws that more than a dozen states have adopted in recent years, and it’s clear that such policies better enable parents to take charge of their children’s education.
Affirming that parents are their children’s primary caregivers, transparency laws protect parents’ right to know what their children are reading and learning at school, so that parents in turn can make informed decisions concerning their children’s education.
In other words, education choice policies invite parents—all parents—to resume the central role they traditionally held in America’s approach to education.
Like the Puritans’ 1642 law, transparency reforms and ESAs summon parents to take the reins, reviewing curriculum options for their children, customizing the courses taken and skills honed to their children’s particular talents and needs if not teaching themselves, and planning for their children’s future.
Should parents reject this invitation, government-run schools remain available as the backup option lawmakers initially intended them to be.
This article is republished from The Daily Signal.
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