The “Family Research Council” has a pamphlet titled Who Should Decide How Children Are Educated? It is available to read in full Here.  It’s a quick and easy read, but we would like to share a few highlights below.

Who has the primary responsibility for making critical decisions about the education of school-aged children?  Their parents?  Or government and the school system it operates?  That is a fundamental question about education policy that faces the United States as it attempts to build educational institutions for the twenty-first century.

However, decisions about what schools their children attend and what education programs the schools use are typically made by the system’s own professionals.  In short, parents fund, support, and cooperate with the school system, but having power over their children’s education is another thing altogether.

Some believe that professional educators, government officials, and the public education system as a whole are best positioned to make educational decisions for children.  Therefore, for the good of the children and society, the experts must control educational decision-making.  This view sees schools as liberating – freeing children from the limitations of their families.

There is an opposing perspective:  parents are best positioned to make educational decisions for their children.  Parents are also the adults closest to children, and, in almost all cases, know their children better than anyone else.  By and large, parents possess the best information about their children.  Thus, the nature of the parental relationship suggests that there is great wisdom in giving parents – not distant organizations – the role of making major decisions about the education of their children.

According to this point of view, parental rights should include the power to oversee important decisions about education.  Parents should have the authority to choose the schools that they deem best suited for their children rather than having a bureaucratic school system make such assignments.  In this view, schools should be agents of the parents and, when chosen by them, should operate in a partnership that supports the parents in the education of their children.  According to this perspective, schools exist to serve families, not the other way around.

The reality is that both parents and educators share the mixture of strengths and weaknesses common to all people.

For society to be healthy, families must be strong, and for families to be strong, other units of society – including government and its schools – must respect their independence.

Finally, educational quality is bound to decline as the child’s school and school system worry less about customer-parents taking their business elsewhere.

Some of the barriers to parental authority in education are described below.

    1. The “Fundamental Assumption” that the School is an Agent of the State Rather than an Extension of the Family
      1. …the schools are a part. By contrast, the public school “is insufficient to meet the demands created by the loss of family functions being experienced today….
      2. “the fundamental assumption on which publicly supported education in the United States is based is wrong for the social structure in which we find ourselves today.
      3. “public schools have  come  to  be  increasingly  distant  from  the families of children they serve, increasingly impersonal agents of a larger society.”
    2. The “Myth of the Common School”
      1. Another assumption shaping our education system to the disadvantage of parents is a secular faith in the public school system.   In this faith, the public school system is an engine of progress and enlightenment whose schools, and only its schools, should receive public funding.
      2. Professor  Charles  Glenn  of  Boston  University has  called  the  belief  in  the  public  school  system “the myth of the common school.”
      3. …the myth “has been transmuted into an establishment ideology that borrows much of the language and the positive associations of the common school to serve a bureaucratized, monopolistic system that is increasingly unresponsive to what parents want for their children.”
      4. Those in power have used the schools for purposes they deem to be good, while many parents have questioned the justice of such arrangements and have looked for alternatives.
    3. The Denial of Public Funding for Nonpublic Alternatives
      1. Some states were required to adopt Blaine Amendments as a condition of statehood.  According to the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, thirty-seven states now have constitutional provisions that restrict government assistance to “sectarian” schools or educational institutions. The Blaine Amendments were designed to discriminate against people who wanted a particular religious education for their children, and they still serve that function today. The effect, then and now, is to restrict educational options for parents by making it difficult or impossible for states to pay for the attendance of children at religious private schools, even though the same states have constitutions that require payment for education at public schools.  Even though the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that a well-designed voucher program that pays for tuition at public or private (including religious) schools does not violate the Establishment  Clause  of  the  First  Amendment (Zelman v. Simmons-Harris, 2002),  state Blaine Amendments can still forbid such opportunities for parents.
    4. The Attempt to Compel Parents to Send Their Children Exclusively to Public School.
      1. In 1922, in the state of Oregon, voters approved a referendum requiring all children between the ages of 8 and 16 to attend public schools.  This is the totalitarian view of children, education, and the state: children belong to the state, and the state uses its schools as an instrument for molding children like plastic in order to create a new man and a new society.  Fortunately, the Supreme Court unanimously ruled that the Oregon statute violated the U.S. Constitution and made clear that parents have a fundamental right to guide the upbringing of their children, and that government has an obligation to respect that right.
    5. Professionalization, Unionization, and the Insulation of Public School.
      1. Public education in the U.S. has become highly professionalized and unionized.  This change has led to a dramatic shift in power from parents and the public to public school employees. In the new professional order, the teachers, administrators, teacher colleges, and state officials had vested interests which they protected, and “school professionals had a stake in limiting the power of the laity.”
      2. In the first half of the twentieth century there was a consensus against collective bargaining for public employees; even FDR and the NEA opposed it. However, things changed in the 1960s as unions went on illegal strikes in big cities and forced the cities to grant them collective bargaining rights.
      3. With the advent of collective bargaining, unions were able to negotiate contracts with friendly school    boards whom they had helped to elect.  The unions used collective bargaining agreements to extend their  political power by requiring school districts to deduct from employees’ paychecks, not only union dues but also additional fees that – unless a teacher-member explicitly objected – could be used for political activities. With these vast resources, the unions vigorously and effectively advanced an agenda that opposed parental choice and other parent-friendly policies.
      4. The unions, through collective bargaining and political activities, have used their considerable power to obtain higher salaries and benefits while increasing the state and local taxes required to pay for them.  Additionally, they block reforms that would improve schools and empower parents but lessen union power.

Parents who choose nonpublic schools have to obtain the funds to pay for tuition and other fees.  However, some states provide financial support for children to attend private schools.  Such support comes in the form of scholarships or scholarship-like tuition assistance (vouchers), tax credits, and tax deductions.  At the end of 2008, 14 states and the District of Columbia provided 24 such programs, compared to seven states and seven programs in 1997.

“Voucher programs both help kids and save money. In Milwaukee, each voucher student saved taxpayers $2,855.  The Florida tax credit voucher program saved state taxpayers $36.2 million in the 2008-09 school year.

People of good will who are concerned about the condition of families and the state of education need to think creatively and act courageously to empower parents to become more actively involved in the education of their children.

For education to serve the public, it must give parents access to a variety of schools, not just government schools.  The old system is a monopoly that is not suited to the realities of modern life.  As with other monopolies, it gives disproportionate weight to itself and special interests, and not enough to the customers, the parents and children, whom it is supposed to serve.  Furthermore, it resists competition.

Parents should be allowed to choose the educational institutions that best suit their needs.

This education reform must be accomplished in a manner that does not interfere with the freedom and distinctive identities of nongovernmental schools. This is critical.  Nongovernmental schools must be able to maintain their distinctive religious or philosophical character, their academic standards, and control over hiring, curriculum, and admissions.

“Public education” has come to mean government education.  However, what we need today is education that serves the public: education where power flows back to parents; where empowered parents are able to choose schools as they see fit (public charter schools, other government schools, private schools, home-schools, cyber schools, or other schools yet to come); where schools of all stripes that offer quality education are free to compete to serve parents; where the success of schools depends more on satisfying parents who freely choose them than on pleasing bureaucracies; and where nongovernmental schools retain their independence.


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