Challenging the Educational Establishment
A discussion is sweeping the country about the role of parents in both the education of their children and what their children’s schools should teach. Frankly, it is high time this conversation took place.
Over the decades, since the advent of the common school, parental involvement in their children’s education has gone from complete authority to having virtually no say. Parents have been eliminated and replaced by the state -- defined as all federal, state, county, or municipal government entities. Added to this takeover are unions, which also have taken a keen interest in what your children are taught. As the state gained more control, it expanded the subjects taught, which, over time, included the state’s definitions of morals, ethics, values, character, and similar topics.
This evolved slowly as the state gained more control of education. It might have continued if not for the pandemic. When schools went remote, parents, for the first time, were able to see the material taught to their children. They were alarmed to find that subjects like Critical Race Theory, radical sex philosophies (including gender preferences), and other controversial subjects were being taught in elementary as well as secondary schools. Parents started to mobilize, expressing their displeasure at school board meetings, protesting, and removing their children from public schools. In fact, for the school year 2020-21, national public-school enrollment declined by 1.5 million students.
The backlash has generated two opposing attitudes about the role of parents in education. Some have suggested that parents should not have any say in what the schools teach, and others suggest that schools should teach what parents want. Neither is right.
Though the obligation to educate our children has now moved from the home to the school, the responsibility for the education of children has not changed. Parents are still the primary entities responsible for the education of their children. Parents control all aspects of a child’s life: where they live, what they eat, when they sleep, who their doctors and dentists are, even where and when they play. Yet, today, they don’t control the child’s education, which is an essential component of raising a child to be a successfully functioning adult. This makes no sense, and parents are now deciding they have had enough.
Though not widely recognized, parents are the “customers” of schools. Private schools recognized this long ago as it is the parents who both select and fund their child’s school. But, as a whole, public schools have not recognized this and have operated as if parents were an unwanted intrusion into their ability to deliver the state-mandated education.
So, should parent’s dictate what is taught in school? Not directly, but they certainly should expect a certain level of learning to prepare their child for life in the 21st century. They should expect that the curriculum employed will prepare their child for a career or a post-secondary education upon graduation. If they don’t see that occurring, they need to speak up and should have the ability to explore other educational options.
Parents have every right to decide what should not be taught in schools. This played out a few months ago in Virginia and now, more recently, in other states. Those who can afford to do so are putting their children in private schools or, if available, charter schools. Others are homeschooling or some adaptation of that. We are seeing more and more hybrid models of schools that perform the function of regular schools. The difference, however, is that parents have a say. Several states have picked up on this parental revolt and are passing school choice legislation, Education Savings Accounts (ESA) legislation, and other changes to the public education structure.
This parental backlash has raised the question, “what should we teach our children?” Our education community needs to ensure that we teach the fundamental knowledge necessary to be a productive, contributing citizen of our great country. That is not happening today and will not happen until we fundamentally change our curriculum, particularly at the secondary level. Also, we need to have our public schools start catering to the recipients of their graduates -- not just universities but the business community, non-profits, and governments. All have very specific needs for skilled workers, many of which do not require a college degree. This will require designing a new curriculum that recognizes these needs and prepares our children.
We know that the existing system fails to educate almost 70 percent of our children effectively. It is time our obsolete public education system is redesigned, including what students need to know and be able to do to exit their K-12 years prepared for life, lifelong learning, and a career.
We also hear the parent community telling us what should not be taught. It is time for public schools to listen.
Donald P. Nielsen is a Senior Fellow at the Discovery Institute and Chairman of the American Center for Transforming Education. He is the author of Every School; One Citizen’s Guide to Transforming Education.