VOICES: Can we talk about parental rights?

Can we talk?

Indicators such as legislation introduced across the nation, testimony at state and local school boards and protests at public libraries suggest that there is a desire, on the part of parents, for a greater voice in their child’s education. Some insist that certain parental rights exist and must be respected, while others urge creation and codification of new rights.

Seeking out the source of parental rights, legally speaking, requires looking across states and history. For instance, the advent of Common Schools in America was based on an assumption of a coherent set of American values that could provide the basis for education. There was an implicit belief that communities, inclusive of parents, could agree on those American values, as the basis for education. Of course, there was also an undercurrent of protectionism — defining and teaching American values could ensure against pollution by “foreign” ideas, brought by (more recent) immigrants.

The notion of one set of values for all was challenged in 1925 in Pierce v. Society of Sisters of Holy Names of Jesus and Mary. With this suit, families won the right to opt out of public education and provide for their children’s education in parochial schools.

In recent years, the right of parents to seek education from sources other than public schools, has been expanded through various voucher programs that funnel public funds (to pay tuition) through families as they choose among alternatives. Other codified rights of parents have included specific requirements for parental involvement in planning for the education of their students with disabilities.

Can we talk?

It’s important to understand the “what is,” before responding to the various demands for educators to honor “parent rights.” Some are claiming “rights” that have never before existed. These include calls for parental review of all lesson plans prior to their being taught. These include universal “opt out” rights for any lesson a parent deems inappropriate for their child. These include an expectation that a school honor the request of any parent to remove materials from the classroom or library.

One element that is particularly disturbing is that some demands expect that the education of other people’s children (or guidance of their parents) be overlooked in meeting the demand. We see this in many of the so-called culture war issues. When history must be screened to eliminate any discomfort to some, important sources of understanding are eliminated for others. Banning acknowledgment of transgender students may simplify life for some, but it requires that trans students be closeted (and unprotected from bullying) throughout their school careers.

Can we talk?

This is the point at which Joan Rivers’ phrase may become helpful. Can we talk? Is it possible for parents across a spectrum of needs and beliefs to talk with one another? Not holding forth at a podium at a school board or legislative committee meeting demanding action, but in groups willing to listen to one another? Because it is possible that the issue in need of resolution is not one of parent rights. The issue is that parents come to the table wanting many different things. While some legislation proclaiming parent rights has claimed constituencies that oppose teaching about American racism, or social-emotional development, or acknowledging the existence of families that include members who are gay or transgender (including some students), it is not difficult to find other parent constituencies that support and desire such things.

Perhaps the place to start is to acknowledge some things that parents can agree on. First off, every parent wants the best for their child. This bears repeating, every parent wants the best for their child. The second thing on which we can all agree is that the window of childhood is very short. While children are by nature very forgiving of our mistakes, we really only have a short time to get things right.

So can we? Get things right? Can we talk?

Susan Zelman is a former State Superintendent of Public Instruction for the State of Ohio and co-author of the book The Buying and Selling of American Education.

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