Children of the state?

In 1922 Oregonians voted to prohibit children from attending private or religious schools. The law never took effect because the US Supreme Court overturned it in 1925, declaring that “The child is not the mere creature of the State.“

Now, we see a modern-day incarnation of that earlier debate, stirred up by the recent revelation that Oregon Speaker of the House Jeff Merkley and his wife applied to send their two children to a charter school in 2004.

Since Merkley voted against authorizing Oregon charter schools in the first place, some see his personal choice to be hypocritical. Others are more charitable, recognizing that he understandably wants to do what’s best for his own children.

And then, there’s the view of retired Portland area public school teacher Terry Olson.*

Olson’s blog often rails against charter schools, private schools and what he sees as the agenda of some to “privatize our public schools.”

At the same time a teacher’s union spokesperson seems willing to cut Merkley some slack for his personal decisions about where his own kids go to school, Olson is not as forgiving. The key passage of his recent blog post proclaims:

To divert human capital –namely good students with strong parental support– from public schools is to undermine the ability of those schools to succeed. I completely reject the notion that the first responsibility of nominally public school-supporting parents is to consider the welfare of their own children while ignoring the well-being of others. I cannot say, as others have, that their urge to seek out “better” options for their kids alone is either understandable or forgivable.

To do so would be to acknowledge that the individual, or private, good trumps the common good. I don’t believe it.

So, there you have it. Children are simply “human capital.” It’s not them we want to see succeed, it’s the government schools. Perhaps Mr. Olson should consider what the Supreme Court told Oregonians back in 1925:

“The child is not the mere creature of the State.”

Postscript: As the first commenter below mentions, I recommend you watch the 10-minute Drew Carey video about how a concerned principal, parents and students have to battle the teachers union to make changes at their school.

Unlocked: Education Revolt in Watts

* Terry Olson passed away on October 15, 2009. He added two comments to this post under the name Terry. My sincere sympathies to his family.

Steve Buckstein is Senior Policy Analyst and founder of Cascade Policy Institute, a Portland-based think tank.