Many educational reformers believe that the best solution for American education is allowing “school choice.” Let parents choose their children’s schools, and the free market would soon separate the successful from the failed schools.
However, the recent case of Peltier v. Charter Day School, Inc. illustrates a fundamental flaw in that assumption. This decision dictating dress codes tells the world that “choice” will only extend as far as the progressives allow.
An Attractive Idea
In the mid-fifties, the biggest compliment a school could receive was to say that it was “progressive.” That meant that the school adhered to the theories of John Dewey of Columbia University’s “Teachers’ College.” Those theories gained virtual universal acceptance in American public schools.
Virtual did not mean unanimous. In 1955, economist Milton Friedman wrote “The Role of Government in Education.” The essay developed the ideas that would later grow into the modern “school choice” movement. “Education spending will be most effective if it relies on parental choice and private initiative,” Dr. Friedman famously said.
Today, Dr. Friedman’s ideas have been translated into reality in two ways. The most faithful version is called the “voucher plan.” This plan allows parents to choose any school they think best. Then, the child’s share of educational tax dollars would go to that school. However, progressives have stopped this plan since public funds would inevitably go to parochial schools, which prevents the “separations of Church and State.”
Progressive compromised by allowing a limited number of “charter schools.” Such schools are state-financed but have an independent board of directors. They are free to determine its curriculum and rules. The most fundamental restriction is that charter schools cannot teach religion.
Challenging Deweyite Progressivism
One such school is Charter Day School in Leland, North Carolina. It is run by The Roger Bacon Academy (R.B.A.), which also operates schools in other locations. The Academy honors a thirteenth-century Franciscan philosopher, linguist, mathematician, scientist, and professor at Paris and Oxford.
R.B.A. uses a classical curriculum. It rejects Dewey’s educational ideas and embraces “direct instruction,” meaning lecture, drill, practice, and so on. Its philosophy is that “The children gain a solid base of knowledge well-grounded in the intellectual, aesthetic, and moral traditions of western civilization.”
The R.B.A. web page also includes a section on character. “We endeavor to inculcate the four classical virtues of prudence, justice, fortitude, and temperance and the three attributes of faith, hope, and charity. Each person associated with an Academy—student, faculty, and staff—is accountable for ensuring that his or her actions exemplify, and are in accord with these virtues. Through the guidance and direction of the adults at each school, the children develop those character-building skills—self-motivation, self-discipline, respect, obedience, self-reliance, and trustworthiness—necessary for growing into valued citizens and leaders in their communities.”
Violating the Dress Code
One means of character development has always been a traditional dress code. Boys wore dress shirts and slacks. Girls wore dress blouses with skirts and jumpers.
Education Week, the “trade paper” of school administrators, quoted the school’s founder (who was unnamed) as having asserted [the dress code] is based on “chivalry” and “mutual respect.”
Three female students objected, and their parents brought suit, claiming that the different dress codes violated Title IX, 20 U.S.C. § 1681. “No person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any education program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance….”
According to a statement from the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), “The students, who were in kindergarten, fourth, and eighth grades when the case was filed, argue that the skirts requirement restricts their movement, inhibits them from playing freely at recess or sitting comfortably, and causes them to feel uncomfortably cold in the winter.”
A Decision that Bodes Ill for “School Choice”
The Education Week article quoted the decision by the Fourth District Court of Appeals. “The text of Title IX is clear. The statute broadly prohibits sex-based discrimination in schools that receive federal funding. That sweeping prohibition is followed by a handful of exceptions. Dress codes are not listed among those exceptions.”
Notice the court’s reasoning. The school receives funding from the local school district. Since part of the school district’s budget comes from the federal government, the dress code is illegal.
The students and their lawyers did not argue that the school taught the boys and girls differently. No student is coerced into attending a charter school, as would be the case in a regular public school. The plaintiffs did not prove that the education of the girls was adversely affected by the dress code. The only difference between boys and girls was that the different dress codes existed, but that was enough.
The effect of this decision is predictable. On June 16, 2021, the U.S. Department of Education decided to include “gender identity” in its definition of rights protected by Title IX.
School Choice Extends Only as Far as Liberals Want It To
The implications of the Fourth Circuit Court’s decision in Peltier v. Charter Day School, Inc. extend much further than dress codes.
No “school choice” plan—either charter schools or vouchers—insulates the school from receiving federal funds. The proverbial Sword of Damocles hangs over the head of any group extending “choice” to traditional education methods, dress or ideas.
In the current environment, “school choice” extends only to choices ranging from liberal to radical.
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