Cultural conservatives are trying to make the 2022 midterm elections about education in general, and the (phantom) issue of “parental rights” specifically. As someone who has been involved in education at various levels for the past 40+ years, I’ve not seen any evidence of a widespread lack of parents’ abilities to guide and influence their children’s schooling.
To be sure, there will always be instances of parents disagreeing with a teacher’s decision about a student’s grade, or a punishment for a student’s misbehavior. But poll after poll shows that a vast majority of citizens believe the public schools that their children attend are doing a “good” or “very good” job, and are satisfied overall with the public schools in their community.
But let’s pretend for a moment that conservatives are correct, people across the country are suddenly outraged at “what’s happening in the public schools”, and angry that their “rights” as parents are being usurped: How would we design schools that defended and supported parents’ rights to guide their children’s learning?
- We’d make sure that those schools were governed by people from our own community, preferably elected to those positions by voters. We’d be wary of schools that were run by for-profit corporations, or managed by appointed boards full of persons—some from outside of our communities—who were friends or family members of the leaders of those schools, or business partners of those leaders.
- We’d want those schools to hold regular, open meetings, during which citizens could address the board with concerns or questions. We’d be leery of schools whose meetings were sporadic, or unannounced, or closed to the public.
- We’d want the teachers in those schools to be highly-qualified and fully-certified professionals, holding at least a bachelors degree and certification from the state, and provided with ongoing professional development opportunities to support and refine the art and craft of teaching. We’d be suspicious of schools that hired “lightly-prepared” instructors with inadequate preparation, and a minimal commitment to the profession that led to a transitory school work force.
- We’d want the curriculum in those schools to be rich and comprehensive, including music, art, foreign languages, and physical education, and to comprise an accurate representation of our country’s history, including the darker parts of our nation’s past. We wouldn’t accept a narrow, barren approach to learning that focused obsessively on “job training” or “workforce development, and we’d be distrustful of a curriculum that cherry-picked content in an effort to gloss over or “whitewash” our history, or present only one point of view.
- We’d want those schools to be open to any child and fully-funded by the public. We’d be distrustful of schools that required entrance exams or lotteries for admission, or charged tuition so prohibitive it functioned as an exclusionary factor in limiting who could attend, resulting in a population of students segregated by family income, race, or ethnicity.
- We’d want our children to be exposed to a wide range of ideas, books, and other forms of literature and expression, including content that might prove challenging or uncomfortable. We’d be alarmed at attempts to restrict the diversity of materials available to our children based on the preferences or opinions of others, or particular belief systems to which some members of the community may not adhere.
- We’d want those schools to be safe, and welcoming, and inclusive for all children and adults who work and learn in them, with adequate staffing from school nurses, mental health counselors, and other student support personnel. We’d be mistrustful of schools that didn’t take reasonable precautions to protect both children and adults during public health emergencies, or didn’t treat all members of the school community with dignity and respect, regardless of race, ethnicity, gender identity, sex, or any other identifying characteristic.
As we reflect on what our ideal schools might look like and how they’d be structured, it seems clear that those advocating most vociferously—and loudly—for “parental rights” are doing so dishonestly. What they claim to be interested in is already readily available to them in our system of traditional public schools: schools that are governed by and responsible to the public, staffed by qualified professionals, offering rich learning experiences, safe and open to all.
What these “parental rights” activists want is not to determine what books their children are exposed to—they want “the right” to decide what books other people’s kids get to read. They want to impose their own narrow point of view on the entire public school system, transforming a “public good” into a regressive, insular environment that advances an extreme belief system on all of us.
They don’t want “parental rights”—they just want the “right” to parent everyone’s kids.
And that should terrify us all.