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Cazenovia Forum speaker argues for school choice

University of Notre Dame law professor Richard Garnett made a forceful argument for school choice in the latest Cazenovia Forum lecture, held on May 29 at the Catherine Cummings Theater.

Garnett told the crowd that school choice is "not a Democrat versus Republican issue" but instead is civil rights issue rooted in the social activism of the 1960s.

"Should parents have the right to determine where, how and by whom their children will be educated?" Garnett asked. "Do people have that right?"

Garnett spoke as part of the Cazenovia Forum's association with the University of Notre Dame Hesburgh lecture series, named for the former president of the university. The talk was co-sponsored by the Notre Dame Club of Syracuse and Central New York.

A onetime law clerk to former Chief Justice William Rehnquist, Garnett writes and teaches about freedom of speech, religious freedom and First Amendment law, among other issues. That expertise came into play several years ago when he wrote an amicus curiae or "friend of the court" brief to the U.S. Supreme Court in a major school-voucher case, Zelman v. Simmons-Harris.

The Court ruled the Constitution allows state and local governments to experiment with school voucher programs, including at religious schools. While the decision established a constitutional basis for choice, it has not ended the political debate over the wisdom of allowing government funds to be used for private education. Garnett said the question now comes down to whether school choice works.

"In my view school choice programs are sound public policy and consistent with the Constitution," said Garnett.

Garnett argued the time has now come for "reasonable" experimentation with school choice programs, and he dismissed opponents' arguments that choice will take children and the financing that comes with them from public schools, equating this line of reasoning with "hostage taking." Why, he asked, should the job security of school employees trump the interests of schoolchildren? "The idea that someone would say 'we need your children to sustain the schools' that they themselves will not send their own children to is a very weak argument."

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