Ari Armstrong, Denver, Education

Armstrong: Parents need greater ability to exit public schools

Ordinarily we recognize the crucial importance of the right of exit in a free society. If your grocer sells rotting produce, you can leave and shop somewhere else. If your spouse is abusive, you can walk out and file for divorce—and government should help protect you from violence. If your employer is a jerk, you can quit. If your employee is a jerk, you can fire the person. If your customer is disruptive, you can ask the person to leave. If you don’t like where you live, you can “vote with your feet” and move. If you change your mind about your religion, you can leave it—something that can get you killed in certain parts of the world. With exit, we can leave unpleasant or dangerous situations and try to find better relationships and conditions elsewhere.

True, the right of exit is not absolute. Often we willingly enter into contracts to assure that both parties follow through on their commitments. If you carelessly get a woman pregnant, you have to help support the child. If you agree to pay a person a certain amount going into the future, cutting ties probably entails a buyout. If you agree to accept money for a service, you need to complete the service. Sure, I can quit paying my mortgage—and eventually the bank will take possession of “my” house. Although parental ties can be legally severed, parents generally have robust obligations to care for their children.

So there are lots of legitimate ways in which our ability to exit a situation is restrained. That does not change the fact that, generally, we have a robust right of exit, and that right is extremely important in gaining agency over our lives.

Limited exit from public schools

Sure, you can request a transfer from one public school to another—a request that can be denied to avoid overcrowding. Or you can pay extra to enroll your child at a private school. Or, like my family, you can homeschool.

Still, most parents have limited ability to exit the public schools. Government forces us to pay for those schools our whole lives through property and other taxes, even if our children never attend those schools. Many families cannot afford to pay double—once for the public schools they do not use, and a second time for the private schools or the homeschooling programs they do use. (Note: Homeschooling families in Colorado can get limited tax-dollar support through select programs.)

Imagine if government forced you to pay $1,300 (for a family of four) per month to your local “public” grocery store, whether you shopped there or not. “Ah,” but the Public Grocers Union proclaimed, “You can shop anywhere you want!” Sure, you can check out any time you like, but you can never leave with your grocery dollars. Under that scenario, would you say that you had a robust right of exit from the public grocery stores? You should probably conclude the same thing about public schools.

Violence at East High

Recently a seventeen-year-old student at East High School in Denver shot two faculty members. The perpetrator, who later apparently committed suicide, “had agreed to be patted down every morning as part of a ‘safety plan’ following previous behavioral issues, police said.” The student previously had been expelled from Overland High School. (I’ll have more to say about the details of this case in a future piece.)

Did you get that? A student considered dangerous to other students, the staff, and himself was “patted down” every day to check for illegally possessed weapons. As is obvious to any sane person, so dangerous a student has no business attending regular school with other children.

Nor is this an isolated problem. Consider this shocking report from 9News: “Just days after an East High School student shot two of that school’s administrators during a daily ‘pat down,’ the principal of Denver’s largest middle school tells 9News his school must also perform daily pat downs on a student charged with, among other things, attempted first-degree murder and illegal discharge of a firearm.” But Denver Public Schools denied the principal’s request to place the student in online learning.

We can and should feel heartbroken for the student who died. Not only did he seriously damage the lives of two other people, he destroyed his own life. So much wasted potential. By not taking his dangerous behavior seriously and getting him into an appropriate program, the public schools put that student and others around him at risk. The results rang out in gunshots and wails of horror and despair.

Yet can parents easily leave the public schools that fail to keep their children safe or that fail to teach them how to read? Of course not. That would require that government respect parents’ right of exit. Instead, any parent who stopped financing their local public school, regardless of its failures, would be tarred by the government as a criminal.

Lots of parents and students love their local public schools and do well in them. Some public schools do better than others when it comes to safety and quality of teaching. We shouldn’t obsess with the problems in public schools and ignore their many successes. But a lot of students are not getting what they need from their public schools. Maybe we should start thinking about ways to give parents greater ability to exit and seek something better.

Ari Armstrong writes regularly for Complete Colorado and is the author of books about Ayn Rand, Harry Potter, and classical liberalism. He can be reached at ari at ariarmstrong dot com


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