Parents, not government, are responsible for the education and upbringing of their children

Principle No. 10: Parents, not government, are responsible for the education and upbringing of their children

“It is the duty of parents to maintain their children decently…; to protect them according to the dictates of prudence; and to educate them according to the suggestions of a judicious and zealous regard for their usefulness, their respectability and happiness.”

-James Wilson, Lectures on Law, 1791

In a broad sense, we must be careful not to use “school” and “education” interchangeably; school is merely one source of education. True education is the development of a person’s soul. It involves spiritual, emotional, and intellectual exercise. 

That is why parents are ultimately responsible for ensuring the proper education and upbringing of their children. This means that no matter who else is involved, including school teachers, coaches, church teachers, or other adults, parents are to be the architects of their children's preparation for adulthood. Whether or not parents act on that responsibility, the fact is that they are accountable to the Creator for the children that have been entrusted to them.

Over the past few decades, we have witnessed a retreat on the part of more and more parents who think they have “better” things to do than raise their children, or who think they are unfit for the task. (Feeling unfit is a universal sentiment; all parents need advice and help raising children, but this doesn’t mean they are unfit.) This retreat of parents has invited the pursuit of others who claim to know better than parents how to meet the needs of children.

Many government programs have been conceived to accommodate this retreat. In the process, parents have yielded even more of their responsibility, reasoning that the intellectual—and even emotional—stimulation provided by these paid workers exceeds the parents' own capacity to provide such things. In some cases this may be true, but the answer is to expand the parents' abilities and confidence, not to encourage them to relinquish more responsibility. This is an area where churches are urgently needed to fill the gap, both in teaching parents and in providing child care when there is a true need.

All too often what happens next is the blame game. When parents expect the schools to take responsibility for raising their children, they blame the schools when that expectation goes unmet. Yet, it is impossible for schools to fulfill that expectation. They try to, by hiring more people and doing more research to find a way to replace parents. But the problems remain. Thus, they blame the parents.

Our society has bought into this notion that schools are the key ingredient in children’s lives. The term “parental involvement” has come out of this. The implication is that schools are responsible for children, and parents are supposed to be involved in helping the schools do that job. In reality, the opposite is true. Parents are responsible and schools are merely supposed to help. “School involvement” would be a more appropriate term, if we viewed the roles as they should be.

The fact is, parents cannot give away portions of their responsibility. They can abdicate it totally, yielding all rights and responsibilities to adoptive parents. But ultimate responsibility for one’s own children is indivisible; it cannot be shared with others.

Choices and Freedom

When parents exercise their responsibility to orchestrate their children's education, some choose to educate their children at home, but most parents "hire" professional educators. They might hire private tutors, but usually they "hire" public or private schools. In either case, these educators are to assist with the child's education, and the parents should have the ability to choose a school that will accomplish that purpose without undermining their authority. And, if parents see that their children are not learning well, they should be able to choose a different school.

For parents who have enough money, this option already exists. If they are unhappy with the public school to which their child has been assigned, they can send their child to a private school, or they can move to a school district or attendance zone that will serve their children better.

But parents who don’t have enough money are often stuck with the school to which the government has assigned them, regardless of the quality of the school. Even under federal guidelines that require perennially poor schools to offer parents an option to transfer their children to another school within the district, it is not uncommon for the other schools to be just as poor as the ones the children would be leaving.

Most public education reform proposals deal with systemic changes, and there is no doubt the system needs to be changed. But the success or failure of systemic changes can only be determined after years of implementation and evaluation. When these attempts fail to produce more successful students (which has been the consistent record over the past forty years), new systemic changes are proposed which will take yet more years to implement and evaluate. And, of course, each new experiment demands more money from taxpayers than the ones before.

Why do we continue to sacrifice generations of students to these social experiments, hoping the next change will be the silver bullet for all children?

The losers are the children who cannot regain the years lost to these failed experiments. The communities where these children live also suffer, as do parents who are trapped in a system that won't allow them to choose better options for their children.

Our state long ago determined that there should be public schools funded by the taxpayers; we're not debating that here. We do, however, believe parents should have a considerable amount of control over how those tax funds are spent on their own children. 

The solution is to allow more freedom for parents to choose—or even start—schools that best meet their children's needs. This can be accomplished in a variety of ways which will maintain (enhance, actually) the opportunities for all students, even in the public school realm.

Competition and Opportunity

Competition is the essential element in improving the price and quality of goods and services. It’s surprising how many business leaders believe this principle until the topic turns to education. For some reason, they treat this one service sector as if it were immune to the benefits of competition. They defend the current system rather than embrace an approach that would allow schools to improve by having to compete with each other. 

If competition in education were allowed, schools would have to do as other service providers do—attract and keep customers, in this case students and their parents, by constantly improving their services. If they didn’t improve, they would risk losing those students to other providers. That is a healthy incentive to improve.

Knowing someone else could draw away our customers is discomforting, but it’s that very discomfort that drives us to pay attention to our customers—and to find better or more efficient ways to do what we do. It is naive to think the education service sector is any different. The result would be better service for the students and better value for taxpayers.

What about children whose parents "don't care enough about their children" to send them to a better school? We believe only a small fraction of parents would fit that category. The problem is that they have never had that chance! In the relatively few places in America where parents are allowed to choose, there has been much greater demand than expected. For example, numerous public charter schools have had far more applicants than vacancies. 

A program in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, has become wildly popular among low-income parents. Since 1990, through one of the few publicly-funded voucher programs in the country, these parents have been able to choose any public or private school, including religious schools, for their children. Longtime Democratic Mayor John Norquist said the parents were tired of waiting for public schools alone to find the right methods, especially when the parents had no choice. He said, "Parents don't want to be a part of some social experiment. They want their kids to be able to read and write." Some find that in public schools, some in private schools.

This is not an attack on public schools in general. Even Nobel Laureate economist Milton Friedman, the father of the "voucher" concept, said he never presumed that private schools would be better than public schools. He simply believed there should be competition, and parents should be able to choose the school that best meets their children's needs. Even within the public system—and without vouchers—there are opportunities to allow parents to act on their responsibility to ensure their children are educated. 

When government officials recognize that parents are responsible for educating and raising their own children, and that publicly funded schools should not undermine the parents, they will govern with humility and restraint.


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