The Little Red Schoolhouse: Pierce, State Monopoly of Education, and the Politics of Intolerance

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Constitutional Commentary

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Const. Comment.


This article examines a landmark constitutional law case, Pierce v. Society of Sisters. Pierce is a product of the post World War I era, when nativist sentiments and fears of communism created a culture that was hostile to immigrants and to ideas that were seen as anti-American. Assimilation of immigrants became a patriotic mission to protect national security and education became the vehicle for assimilation. In 1922, Oregon passed a law requiring all students to attend public school. The Court of that era grappled with the massive political, economic, and social upheavals rendered by the war. The vast and rapid technological and social changes occurring throughout the country brought cases to the Court that pressed the Justices to address the proper balance between state control and individuality in a constitutional democracy. This focus on defining the limits of government power in a constitutional democracy illuminates Pierce, one of only two substantive due process cases from the Lochner era based on personal rather than economic liberties. The Court struck down the Oregon law because it unreasonably interfered with the liberty of parents to direct the upbringing and education of their children. This article examines Pierce in its historical context. Its thesis is that the parental rights protected in Pierce augment an opinion concerned primarily with whether state monopoly of education is permissible in a democracy. While Pierce is legitimately viewed as a seminal case for the constitutional protection of parental rights, the case provides far greater insight into fundamental attributes of democracy.

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