Terry McAuliffe surely blundered when he declared—out of context though it was taken—that “I don’t think parents should be telling schools what they should teach,” thereby handing Glenn Youngkin a perfectly-timed campaign issue. Millions of parents in Virginia and across the land were already aggrieved by their schools’ mishandling of education during the Covid-19 pandemic, conscious that many school systems paid greater heed to the demands of their adult employees than the needs of their pupils. This caused huge learning losses for most kids and enormous challenges for parents. Lots of parents were also alarmed by reports that their schools were going to extremes in teaching about race, gender, sexuality, and other touchy or politically charged issues. At a time when the larger polity was already polarized, siloed, and jittery, it was a no brainer for Youngkin and his advisors to make this a winning issue.
Signals from other elections plus polling data also suggest that education has re-emerged as a top concern for much of the electorate. In response to which, House minority leader Kevin McCarthy has promised that the GOP will soon develop a “parents’ bill of rights” intended for Republican use in the midterm elections and beyond, as well as future action on Capitol Hill.
It’s too soon to know what will be in it, though undoubtedly it will make a big deal of parents’ right to select their children’s schools. One may hope it also includes a push for curricular transparency so that parents can readily see what their kids are being taught, not just in the three R’s, but also in civics, history, literature, and the less academic realms of social and emotional well-being, health, and values. Parents should know who is teaching and counseling their daughters and sons—their names, their training, their work experience, and (where relevant) their certification. Moms and dads also have every right to know what’s going on in their children’s schools by way of disciplinary policy and practices, building security, and the handling of awkward “social” issues (who uses which restrooms and locker rooms and plays on which teams), as well as such basics as what’s on offer in the lunchroom.
That’s all legitimate information for parents—and much of it is very difficult for most parents to find out today. Bravo for a “bill of rights” that takes up and runs with transparency as well as choice.
But how much farther should it go and is there a risk of going too far?
Indeed there is, which calls for bill-of-rights architects to strike a careful balance, something nearly unheard of at an unbalanced time. For education is not exclusively the province of parents any more than it’s the monopoly of the state—precisely the balance the Supreme Court struggled with a century ago in its landmark Pierce decision.
It’s a combination, a sort of hybrid, beginning with the truth that education is both a private good and a public good—as any economist will tell you. The child is not the creature of the state, yet society has an obligation to ensure that its next generation is adequately educated. That’s why every state has embedded that obligation in its constitution. That’s also why, for instance, states have compulsory attendance laws even as parents have the right to educate their kids at home. If they send them to school, as most do, they should have choices among schools, yet the state decides what is a school. Parents should of course select the school or schools that best suit their children but, having done that, should entrust things like curriculum to the schools and their educators. If parents are then unhappy with how it’s going in the school they chose, they should—and should be able to—change schools. But that’s not the same as meddling in the curriculum and pedagogy of their chosen schools or harassing the professionals who staff them.
Schools should be free to differ in dozens of ways, yet it’s reasonable for the state to verify that they all provide adequate learning outcomes in core subjects. That doesn’t mean all schools must use the same curriculum or pedagogy or follow the same philosophy to produce those outcomes. Again, it’s a balance, one easily thrown out of whack if, for example, the state doesn’t permit or overly constrains school choices, or if parents, having chosen, still interfere overmuch with how their schools go about it.
Parents have other options, too. They can—and many more should—run for the school’s board or the local school board. They can run for the state board of education, the town council, or the legislature. They can start their own charter or private schools, at least they can where this is permitted by law and where the state’s dollars follow children to the schools they actually attend. A nontrivial issue in Virginia is the Old Dominion’s extreme paucity of public charter schools—just seven at last count—due to a highly restrictive charter law, meaning that the overwhelming majority of Virginia families have no choices beyond their local school district. This means the political system builds up education steam without adequate escape valves. That leads to rancor, protests, and overheated campaigning rather than the creation of viable alternatives.
So let’s applaud the generous provision of quality school choices everywhere in the land. And let’s push for maximum school transparency. In pursuit of those ends, a parents’ bill of rights is a fine thing. But let’s also make sure that it can coexist with society’s responsibility to ensure that its next generation gets satisfactorily educated and the state’s obligation to ensure that that happens. Let’s try—let’s hope—to get this balance right despite the imbalances that surround us.
Chester E. Finn, Jr., is a Distinguished Senior Fellow and President Emeritus at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute. He is also a Senior Fellow at Stanford’s Hoover Institution.
This post originally appeared on the Fordham Institute’s Flypaper blog.
Last updated November 12, 2021