Advance Copy: Nicole Stelle Garnett

Welcome to Advance Copy, a look at the people, perspectives, and scholarship of the Institute for Educational Initiatives, home to the University of Notre Dame’s initiatives advancing its long-standing commitment to the future of K-12 schools.



Nicole Stelle Garnett


Just Published:

The Case for Parental Choice: God, Family, and Educational Libertywritten by John E. Coons and edited by Nicole Stelle Garnett, Richard W. Garnett, and Ernest Morrell.

It is the first book in a new series, Catholic Schools and the Common Good, from the Institute for Educational Initiatives and the University of Notre Dame Press.


Hails from:

Kansas City - on the Kansas side!



Alliance for Catholic Education: Education Policy
Institute for Educational Initiatives: Research on Parental Choice



Yale Law School, New Haven, Connecticut. J.D.
Stanford University, Stanford, California. B.A., with distinction, Political Science





Favorite place on the Notre Dame campus:

The final station with Jesus, Mary, and John at the outdoor Stations of the Cross at St. Joseph’s Lake.


What drew you to work at Notre Dame?

My husband, Rick, and I both had the opportunity, probably close to 25 years ago, to interview for jobs in the Law School. We were very drawn to the Catholic mission and to the community and really felt like it was a special place and a place we would like to commit to sustaining and even making better. So we've spent our lives trying to build this place up.


And you are doing an excellent job. What a year for a lot of the work that you've been dedicating your life to... How do you feel?

Very good! It’s just so exciting. I’ve been in this fight for parental choice since I graduated from law school. Early in my career, I worked defending early voucher programs, the first programs to include religious schools in Milwaukee and Cleveland, and then after coming to Notre Dame as a scholar working with the Alliance for Catholic Education to advance the cause of parental choice in education. A lot of my scholarship is about parental choice, but it's also where my heart is. I feel like it's my life's work in some ways, and I know others have done a lot more to advance the cause, but we're at a place now where over 30 states have a program. Six states have added universal programs in the last six months, and it's just really gratifying and moving.


Why this book and why now?

The “why now” is an amazing, almost coincidence. I'll start with the “why.” Jack Coons, he's now 93 years old, has spent most of his career as a law professor at Berkeley. He's been an advocate for parental choice since the 1960s. He was involved in the integration movement, marched at Selma, and he was just very, very interested in civil rights. Because of his work for integration, and as a professor at Northwestern at the time, he was asked to do some research on the Chicago public schools and integration. What he saw horrified him. He saw it himself and said, “These kids aren't learning. There's got to be a better idea.” This was the Great Society, and everybody was like, “Let's give more money to public schools.” But he got it in his head that the real answer was choice. Since then he's been advocating for parental choice in education.

He wrote a book in 1978 with his long-term colleague, the late Steve Sugarman, called Education by Choice. I think it's probably the best book ever written about school choice. They wrote a lot together, and they had this very beautiful idea that the reason we want choice is not because we want test scores to improve, but because of human dignity and the dignity of parents. And in Catholic terms, because Jack is a deeply Catholic person, he would say parents are the first and best educators of the child. They have this really beautiful social justice message. We spend so much time talking about improving performance and academic forms, but really what we're missing in this debate is that parents are systematically disempowered— if they don't have money—to take control over their children's futures.

Jack likes to say parents know their children better and they love them more than anyone else in the world, and yet we systematically tell them in education, the public education system in particular, that they aren’t trusted to make decisions over their children's futures. Jack and Steve just believed from the beginning that was deeply unjust.

Not only did they write the first really important book about school choice, not only was Jack trying to convince Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., in the ‘60s to support school vouchers, but they had this argument that was not as much a part of the debate as it probably should’ve been: That this is really about empowering parents.

When the opportunity to publish Jack’s series of essays came to Rick, Ernest, and me, we talked about it, and it just seemed like the right fit. We wanted to amplify Jack's voice, Jack's message. He's published dozens of books and hundreds of articles. He still regularly blogs, so it's not that he can't take care of his own voice, but it just seemed like a great opportunity to amplify that particular argument and not let some of these essays that were published over the decades fall through the cracks or be forgotten.

Perhaps the best article that I think has ever been written about school choice is called, “School Choice as Simple Justice.” In it Jack uses the image that the children are the tapestry of their parents and that parents speak through their children, especially poor parents, and in some ways the child is the one work of art that many parents will ever leave behind. We need to give them power to paint the tapestry. As an undergraduate, that was very captivating to me, and that one essay shaped my own life's work. It was a gift to be able to work with Jack and get to know him better on this book. That is the “why.”

And the “why now?” We started because Jack was in his early 90s, and we wanted him to have this opportunity to have these essays published. We care about Jack, and we thought he is an important person, and his voice was maybe known well in the school choice movement, so we wanted to amplify it.

Now there's this incredible coincidence that Jack's book is getting published at this moment – not just this moment when all these states are adopting parental choice, but as there's been a radical shift in the messaging about what choice is about. For many years, the main argument has been sort of this rescue mission. There was this social justice message—we need to get kids out of bad schools and into good ones—which certainly would resonate with Jack. But there was also: this will improve education, this will improve outcomes, this will improve test scores. Now the messaging has shifted to…We need to empower parents to take control of their children's education. They know what's best. This is a moving thing, a beautiful thing, really, that the book is coming out at this time.


What drives your passion for parental school choice?

So many things. I was thinking back to why I really got interested in this. It was undergrad. It was in the ‘90s. The first voucher program had been passed. I've always been a bit of a bleeding heart, and I heard a talk by a woman named Polly Williams, who was part of the coalition that got the first voucher program in the United States enacted in Wisconsin for 500 kids in Milwaukee. She put these bussing maps up with all these crisscrosses, that they would take the kids here and there, and her whole point was, “This is insane. Why are we doing this? There are good schools in their neighborhoods. We can make better schools for them.” I was captivated by this. It just made sense to me. One of the reasons it was important to me is, my parents divorced when I was young, and we had some difficult economic times, but as a child I was aware that I had gone to good schools in suburban Kansas City. I went to really good public schools, and I was very lucky. I was always aware that not everybody was as lucky as I was, and initially this captivated that part of my heart that thought school choice is a way that we can make this work.

And then, as I got deeper into it, I learned about the miracle of Catholic schools. I wasn’t Catholic at the time. I was a convert to school choice before I was a convert to Catholicism. I learned about the miracles that urban Catholic schools perform every day in the lives of children, many of whom are not Catholic. And then I became a Catholic, and I became a Catholic school mother. And I learned about the gift of Catholic education through living it with my own children. And so part of it was this, and it always has been for me, animated by this idea that as much as there were struggles in my childhood that were difficult financially, I didn't struggle with my education. I was gifted a very, very good public education, and many students are, but not everybody is. It's like a puzzle. All the pieces have just come together. It's an exciting time to be here. It's an exciting time for the Catholic Church because there are going to be a lot of opportunities to serve more kids that need our schools very much.


This is the first book in a new book series — Catholic Schools and the Common Good — from the Institute for Educational Initiatives and the University of Notre Dame Press. Tell me about the genesis of this book series, what it hopes to offer, and what can we look forward to in the series?

The series has been an idea that has been around for a while. Ours is the first book in the series. The idea is that the Notre Dame Press really wanted to tap into the talent in ACE and the Institute to tell the story, in a rigorous and academic way, of Catholic education. You know a lot of the research on Catholic schools is dated. We can tap into the talents internally, and also of people outside the University, who might want a home to study and to publish these things that other presses might be less interested in. I'd love to see a lot of new titles. I don't have one in mind right now, but I'd love to see more folks from the Institute and ACE publishing. I'd like to see this become the place where younger voices—maybe some former ACE teachers who go on to get their advanced degrees or law degrees and become professors—can write books for the series.


Along the lines of challenges and successes...
There's been a lot of forward movement in the school choice sector recently. Are you hopeful for the future of parental choice?

Yes! Legislatively, I think there's no question that it will continue. For whatever reason, maybe it was school closures, something happened. There's that Buffalo Springfield song that says, “Something's happening here. What it is ain’t exactly clear.” Something's happening here, and we might not know until we look back to see exactly what, but something pretty momentous is happening. Even this year it's possible there'll be huge programs in Texas, which would be a game changer. Texas has no parental choice outside of their charter schools. Florida’s state house voted to expand the state’s ESA program. I think Oklahoma will get a very large program. There's talk of Idaho, Nebraska, North Dakota. There's a lot going on. It's a really exciting time.

The challenges are related to the opportunity, which is that these programs are bigger. They provide funding for things other than tuition, so they're not voucher programs. You can use it for tuition, but you can also use it to homeschool. You can set up your microschools. You can get educational tutoring. You can get it to get your therapies. This is a whole new ball game, and we don’t know for sure what's going to happen or how to implement it. I just wrote a report, Unlocking the Potential of Private-School Choice, on implementation. I think the real challenge is going to be getting the programs right on the ground once they become a reality. It's a great challenge to have. It's not magic. In the past, parental school choice advocates thought that it would be a panacea, that it would sort of fix everything. And we've learned in the last 30 years that's not the case. The hard work begins when you get a program. So I want to think about dedicating more time, and I hope ACE will too, to the implementation side. In ACE can we help the Catholic schools, the Church, Catholic schools teachers, principals, superintendents. Can we help them get this right so that Catholic school choice can really fulfill its transformational potential? I think that's a huge challenge. But I think it's one that's exciting to have…I am hopeful and very happy.