Garnett admitted that public schools have an extremely difficult task and often are not well equipped to handle it. He said that while wealthy people already have a type of choice--they can move to a better district or send their kids to private schools--the poor are often stuck with substandard schools that deliver a substandard education. The answer, said Garnett, is not a monopoly but the competition that private schools bring to the education system.
School choice, he said, is an outgrowth of Catholic social thought of the 1960s that said the poor should have a preferential choice.
While stating that public education serves as a foundation of a well-functioning democracy, Garnett also argued that the experience with large numbers of Catholic schools has served our nation well, citing research that shows adults who attended parochial schools generally have higher rates of civic involvement. Catholic schools as well are usually more integrated than public schools. "There is nothing parochial about Catholic schools", he said.
Before joining the faculty at Notre Dame Law School, Garnett specialized in private practice in religious liberty matters, and he wrapped up his talk by turning to that theme in the context of school choice. "To permit educational choice," he said, "is to admit that education is a profoundly religious exercise. We need to go beyond that school choice is permissible and argue that it is just. The purpose of education is not just to train workers, but to support human dignity."
A lively question and answer session followed Garnett's remarks, during which he defended school choice against the idea that religious schools would cherry pick the best students. He said the record shows the schools "take all comers" and that school choice empowers the poor.
Garnett's talk was the final of the season in the Cazenovia Forum series. The Forum is a not-for-profit lecture series featuring nationally and internationally known speakers. Two talks are already scheduled for the fall. Dan Reicher, Google's Director of Climate Change and Energy Initiatives who was in the running to be Secretary of Energy in the Obama Administration, will speak on October 9th, and Richard Johnson will speak on American Political corruption and reform in November. For more information on Cazenovia Forum events, visit