Steve Sachs Duke


Thursday, August 26, 2004


The Alchemy of Parental Choice: Dalia Lithwick, whose work I generally enjoy, has the following curious passage in a recent NYT guest column:

To be sure, the courts have made a hash of the First Amendment religion jurisprudence. A crèche on government property is constitutional so long as the manger includes a Malibu Barbie; and state aid to religious schools is constitutional if it's triangulated through the alchemy of parental choice.

I can't comment on crèche law, but what's so occult and mysterious about "the alchemy of parental choice"? The fact that parents do the choosing makes an enormous (and obvious) difference. The left has generally resisted attempts to micromanage the lives of the poor, arguing that recipients of public aid should be allowed the dignity of making their own decisions. Those who receive a government check could choose to spend it, in Robert Nozick's formulation, "on going to the movies, or on candy bars, or on copies of Dissent magazine, or of Monthly Review." So why not on religious education? We don't prohibit parents from using their tax cuts to pay for Sunday school, even though the state would be prohibited from paying for it directly. We don't prevent the elderly from endorsing their Social Security checks to the Salvation Army--nor, as I've mentioned before, do we stop welfare recipients from donating to religious charities, lest taxpayer dollars somehow find their way into the collection plate.

In the context of education, those parents who can't afford private school (and who would be the target of any likely voucher plan) might wish to send their children to Catholic schools or yeshivas; schools with strict discipline or hippy classes taught under trees; schools that emphasize science, the arts, or ancient Greek. So long as all of them meet basic educational standards, why should the state be concerned with which they choose? And why should the First Amendment be endangered, given that the choice is made by individuals rather than state officials?

The concern Lithwick feels, to paraphrase George Will, seems to be that the poor are insufficiently materialistic. If parents wanted to give their kids candy bars, they're free to choose; but if they want to give them religion, suddenly it's alchemy.




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