Precinct 333

Monday, March 21, 2005

Do Teachers Get To Decide On The Education Of Their Children?

Yes, folks, that is the question that is to be decided by a jury in Texas. One would have hoped that no one would have even needed to ask that question, but apparently that was not the case in at least one Texas school district. The case involves a teacher, Karen Jo Barrow, passed over for promotion by Greenville Independent School District in favor of a less qualified candidate because of her decision to send her children to a local Christian school.

Barrow, who has had her principal's certificate for ten years and has taught for 15, alleges she was told by Superintendent Herman Smith that she had no future in the school district unless she removed her children from Christian school. But when she explained her religious objections to removing her children from the educational setting she had chosen for them, the teacher was denied the position and removed from the list of candidates. Instead the middle school principalship was given to an applicant who had not been recommended and who had not even completed the certification process.

Frankly, that is an outrageous abuse of power. There are a variety of reasons that one may choose a private school education for one's child. In her case, she felt that the best choice for her children was one that provided both secular and religious education. That is not an unreasonable choice. Using that decision as the basis for denying career advancement is nothing short of religious discrimination. Passing her over for a less experienced, less qualified candidate only highlights the fact that this was not a judgment call about qualifications. Barrow's response was to seek legal counsel, and a suit was filed on her behalf by the Liberty Legal Institute.

What I find even more shocking are the arguments made by the attorneys for the school district. It has been settled law for eighty years that the state may not compel parents to select a public rather than a private education. Unless employment by a school district results in the loss of basic citizenship rights, the school really lacks any firm basis for its actions.

Attorneys for the Greenville School District have attempted to justify Smith's actions by arguing that superintendents are under a great deal of pressure due to competition from charter and Christian schools. However, LLI is arguing that Barrow and other Christian parents have the right to choose religious education for their children without government retribution.

Smith also attempted to claim qualified immunity in the matter, initially arguing that Ms. Barrow's right to select private school education for her children was not clearly established at the time he refused to consider her application for the principal's position. The U.S. District Court in Dallas had ruled against the teacher, declaring that a parent's right to choose private education is not a fundamental right. However, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit reversed that ruling with a 3-0 decision in favor of Barrow and LLI.

Superintendent Smith must have slept through his class dealing with school law on the evening that they dealt with the seminal case on the issue of parental choice in education, Pierce v. Society of Sisters (268 US 510 (1925)) Without going into the entire background of the case, it dealt with the state of Oregon attempting to create an educational monopoly that made it illegal to send a child to other than a public school. The Supreme Court struck down that law with a ringing endorsement parental rights to oversee and direct the education of their children.

"The fundamental theory of liberty upon which all governments in this Union repose excludes any general power of the state to standardize its children by forcing them to accept instruction from public teachers only. The child is not the mere creature of the state; those who nurture him and direct his destiny have the right, coupled with the high duty, to recognize and prepare him for additional obligations."

For the lawyers for Greenville ISD to make the claim that the law was not settled on the matter of Barrow's right to choose a religious education for her children is therefore absurd. She had every right to send her child to the school of her choice, and the attempt by the district to interfere with that choice by making negative decisions in the matter of employment or promotion is a clear violation of that right. When one couples the violation of that right with the religious basis of that decision, it is clear that this right is a fundamental one.

Interestingly enough, the school district seems to have already changed the policy at issue in this case. A quick look at the district website shows that the principal of Greenville High School is. . . Karen Jo Barrow.


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