The fight over school choice is really a battle over a basic question: Who will raise our children?
If parents can choose how and where their children are educated, they are effectively determining how their children will be raised. Education not only affects economically useful skills, such as literacy and numeracy, but also shapes the character of young people by emphasizing certain values and role models. Parents have long recognized the importance of education in character formation, which is why historically, they had large control over who taught their children—and over what they were being taught .
But in recent decades, the role of parents in determining the education of children has increasingly been displaced by a professional class of experts. The fact that these experts have pushed schools through a revolving door of failed educational fads, from whole language reading instruction to open classrooms to Common Core, has done nothing to diminish their confidence. This time they have it right, we’re told, so parents just need to get on board and hand their students over.
The experts don’t just want to dictate how to teach dry academic content, though; they also seek to impose their preferred values on children regardless of parental concerns. If, for example, school officials believe that white children are inherently oppressors and black children are inherently oppressed, they feel empowered to teach this over parental objections. If school officials think children born as girls can become boys (and vice versa), they will help those children change their names and pronouns, which bathrooms they use, and what sports teams they play on—all while keeping these developments secret from parents.
In this “expert” model of child-rearing, parents may give birth to children, but the methods and values with which those children are raised are determined by professionals equipped with superior access to reason and science.
During the pandemic, this subversion of parental authority became hard to hide. Parents could more directly see what their children were being taught and could witness the false invocation of science to close schools and mask children, laying bare the abuse of expertise claimed by these professionals. Parents organized and raised their objections at school board meetings. The Biden administration, prompted by the National School Boards Association, tried to contain this parent uprising by branding them as domestic terrorists, but their momentum was too great, leading to upset victories for parental rights in election contests in Virginia and all over the country.
But grassroots efforts are hard to sustain, and entrenched bureaucrats can often wait until the protest’s energy dissipates to restore rule by professional experts. So, how can parents translate their concerns about the values and content taught to their children into more enduring parental control over education?
The best way to ensure that parents are in charge of raising their own children is to expand school choice. Once parents are empowered to leave an education system that is undermining their values or failing their children academically, the bureaucrats in charge will have to start listening. Parents will be able to use their taxpayer dollars to hold education officials accountable—that’s the kind of power not easily taken away when the political tide turns.
School board victories can be reversed in the next election. Laws prohibiting certain methods or topics of instructions can be evaded by clever school staff who simply relabel or conceal what they are teaching. But when parents exercise school choice, they can be mobilized whenever their control is placed in jeopardy. This is why every school choice defeat should be viewed as temporary, but every victory is likely permanent.
Following the pandemic, parental concern about controlling the education of their children has translated into an enormous expansion of school choice. In the previous legislative session, 19 states passed 32 new or expanded private school choice programs. It is essential that we keep up this momentum. To do so, we need to remind parents about the ways in which their schools teach values that are often at odds with what they believe.
Parents are concerned about academic quality, but they are even more motivated by threats to their children’s moral upbringing and character formation. Above all else, most parents want their children to be decent human beings who share their core values. When they see more of how their public schools place that moral development in jeopardy, parents will push for even more expansions in school choice.
This piece originally appeared in the Washington Examiner