Is It a Right?

Member Group : From the Kitchen Table

The Pennsylvania State Senate is currently debating a new school choice bill. Among its provisions, the bill would create a state board to administer funds, called opportunity scholarships, to enable some children to attend an educational institution other than the public school of the district in which those children reside.

The bill begins with "legislative findings", or statements of the basic principles upon which the language of the proposed law will be based. The findings stipulate that "Parents are best suited to choose the most appropriate means of education for their school-age children. Providing diverse educational opportunities for the children of this Commonwealth is a civic and civil rights imperative and a matter of serious concern."

If those sentences are correct, and it is a civil rights issue to make sure that parents have the ability to choose the most appropriate means to educate their children, then the language of the bill should reflect that sentiment. It should include all parents, because if something is actually a civil right, it cannot legitimately be denied to some and given to others by an act of government.

If the government can determine who is accorded a right, and who is not, then the "right" in question is no longer a right – it is a privilege.

Like a driver’s license. By state definition, a driver’s license is a privilege. The government decides who can get a license under what conditions. It decides whether and how much a licensee is charged for the privilege of keeping a driver’s license. It can revoke the driver’s license whenever the person fails to meet the conditions under which the privilege was granted.

So, is the ability to determine the educational placement of their school-age children a parental right, as the legislative findings section of the bill states, or is it a privilege?

The working provisions of the bill indicate that the government considers it to be a privilege. It is a privilege that the bill’s authors care about with obvious sincerity. They have clearly thought about the best way to ensure its availability to those parents who are being offered the ability to exercise it. But it is still a privilege.

According to the bill’s provisions, full implementation of the Opportunity Scholarship program will give parents who have incomes below 1.3 times the Federal Poverty Line the chance to apply for assistance to help pay for the tuition if they decide to educate their children in a different school than the one in the district in which they reside. The 2011 qualifying income limit for a family of 4 would be $29,326.50. So a family of 4 with an income of $29,326.51 would not be able to even apply for the scholarship.

It’s not a matter of where the qualifying income number is set – it’s a matter of the government giving itself the right to set a qualifying number at all. If choosing the educational setting for one’s own children is a right, then a parent’s income should not matter to the government in allowing the exercise of that right.

The Education Improvement Tax Credit program, which is also part of the bill, meets that requirement. The government is neutral – any business can contribute to the educational scholarship program of its choice to allow that program to give parents a greater opportunity to exercise their right to select the proper school for their own children.

In the EITC program, the government opened doors for all parents to exercise their civil right to direct the education of their own children. It’s a model that should be expanded.