Parental say in education is hotly debated. “I don’t think parents should be telling schools what they should teach,” Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe said in a debate last September before losing to Republican Glenn Younkin. The Michigan Democratic Party said public schools should not “teach kids only what parents want them to be taught” but “what society needs them to know,” then deleted the post. Conservative school board candidates, partly by beating the drum of parental rights, did well in parts of Colorado, but not everywhere, reflecting our state’s diverse electorate.
In a recent Colorado poll, 40% of people said parents should have “a lot of say in what schools teach,” while 37% said parents should have some say. People are debating whether and how to bring more transparency to what schools teach. The leftist reporter Chase Woodruff, pointing to a New Republic article, helpfully reminds us that Colorado voters rejected a parental rights measure back in 1996 over concerns about child abuse and potential chaos in schools.
What rights do parents actually have?
In the wake of the teacher walkout in Douglas County, and with continuing debates about equity, race, gender, and political activism in schools, this is a good time to ask: What rights do parents actually have with respect to their children’s education? This problem is inherently thorny in the context of public schools.
Consider what rights you have with respect to a grocery store. Do you have the right to barge into a store and demand that the store either carry or discontinue certain items? No. You may request that the store change its offerings, then the store’s owners and managers get to decide. Then you get to decide whether to shop at that store exclusively, sometimes, or not at all.
The public schools operate in a fundamentally different way. You are forced to finance the government-run schools whether you want to or not, whether you use them or not. Sure, parents have considerable flexibility in Colorado to choose among public schools, including charter schools. Or parents may homeschool or send their children to private school, in which case they get all of their government-school money back. Ha! Just kidding. Parents who do that have to pay twice, once through taxes for the public schools they don’t use, and again for the private options they do use.
In the context of a private school, a parent has no right to force a school to teach or not teach something, just as a shopper has no right to force a store to carry or not carry some product. A parent can make requests. And, if the parent does not like a private school’s policies, the family is free to withdraw the student and take their educational dollars elsewhere.
Because parents cannot withdraw their funds from public schools, and because public schools are run largely democratically, with elections for school board and other policy positions, the interests of parents inherently conflict. Some parents want schools to teach biological evolution and not mention creationism. Other parents want the reverse. Still others want evolution taught in science class and creationism taught in some other class. Some parents want schools to emphasize the greatness of America; others, the racial oppression of America’s past. Some parents want schools to teach liberal sex education; others, just the basic biological facts. On dozens of issues parents disagree.
Parents, then, do not all think alike. When conservatives call for “parental rights” in the context of public schools, what they often mean is that they want conservative parents to get their way and other parents not to get their way. Often like-minded parents organize and grab more media and political attention, while less-organized parents get left out. If conservative parents do not organize, often they find themselves without a seat at the discussion.
Schools can sometimes diffuse controversy by making concessions to parents on particular issues. Often parents can withdraw their kids from certain trips, projects, or discussions. But these concessions have their limits. For example, setting up an entirely different class for a particular student might be prohibitively expensive. And often a classroom discussion evolves dynamically in a direction a teacher does not initially predict—surely we don’t want lessons totally scripted and politically sanctioned in advance.
The upshot is that, in important ways, parents lack control over their children’s education in public schools. And, because they cannot redirect their tax dollars to homeschooling or a private school, often parents justifiably feel pushed around and stuck. (A qualifier: Homeschoolers can recapture some portion of their educational dollars through government-approved “options” programs.)
What can be done
The radical approach would be to separate school and state and get government totally out of the business of running schools and funding education. Then parents would keep all of their educational dollars now collected through taxes and directly finance their children’s education. Parents who struggle financially could rely partly on sliding tuition rates and private charity. Then parents would choose from among a wide variety of schools catering to different needs and philosophies of education. But the freedom option seems unimaginable to many people.
A universal voucher system would give parents their portion of the tax dollars currently spent on the public schools. Parents could then spend that money on whatever educational services the government allows. Ideally a parent could use the money to supplement the family’s income to allow for homeschooling. Vouchers come with some government controls, and they involve forced welfare transfers, so they give many libertarians pause. But they would definitely expand parental control of education. An alternative is to means-test vouchers and stop subsidizing wealthier parents.
Another possibility is to let each taxpayer direct their education-bound tax dollars. So, for example, someone could choose to fund an independent school or a fund that assists homeschoolers. This program too would be subject to some government restrictions.
Short of such far-reaching reforms, government can continue to give public charter schools ready approval and maximum flexibility. Interestingly, even the union-backed Denver school board recently renewed the contracts of 16 charter schools, indicating the popularity of charters among families who use them. Yet Progressives typically oppose new charter schools, as Boulder’s response to the proposed Ascent Classical Academy illustrates. Also, government can continue to recognize the rights of parents to homeschool and, ideally, remove remaining barriers to parents hiring outside help.
Unfortunately, often we see a dynamic in which Progressives and conservatives vie for ideological control of the public school system. Generally, I trust parents to do right by their children when it comes to their education. I wish more politicians also trusted parents.
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