Family Moves and the Future of Public Education

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Elizabeth Chu. Executive Director, Columbia Center for Public Research and Leadership; Lecturer of Law, Columbia Law School.

James S. Liebman. Simon H. Rifkind Professor, Columbia Law School.

Madeline Sims. Director of Consulting and Legal Strategy, Columbia Center for Public Research and Leadership.

Tim Wang. Law Clerk, U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of New York.

State laws compel school-aged children to attend school while fully funding only public schools. Especially following the COVID-19 pandemic, this arrangement is under attack—from some for unconstitutionally coercing families to expose their children to non-neutral values to which they object and from others for ignoring the developmental needs of students, particularly students of color and in poverty whom public schools have long underserved. This Article argues that fully subsidized public education is constitutional as long as public schools fulfill their mission to model and commit people to liberal democratic values of tolerance and respect for all persons as equal choosers. To be sure, those values are not neutral. But as Brown v. Board famously concluded, their promotion in public schools is perhaps the nation’s and states’ single most compelling interest, because it is essential to the ability of people with diverse beliefs to live together harmoniously while preserving their vast freedoms in other respects. To keep public education from qualifying those freedoms any more than necessary, states give families a right to opt for private education, but at their own expense. This arrangement serves the compelling interest in public education, however, only if public schools—bolstered by compulsory education laws and their uniquely full public subsidization—attract enough families. For well over a century, public schools have attracted around 90% of all school children. Today, however, family moves away from public education are eroding its ability to attract children due principally to public education’s conflation of “public” with bureaucratically “uniform” education—precluding pedagogically, democratically, and equitably essential differentiation among students. The Article proposes ways public schools can better model liberal democratic values by engaging all families in the cooperative and differentiated direction of their children’s learning.

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