Frank Bruni had an interesting article in the New York Times on the fact that public schools are created, at taxpayer expense, to serve a public purpose. That purpose, according to Bruni, is “the cultivation of citizens who better appreciate our democracy and can participate in it more knowledgeably and productively.”
I happen to agree with that point of view but would modify it to include making our society more socially and economically mobil and making our economy more productive. Having added that modification, I agree with Bruni’s main point that parents don’t have a lot of rights, as parents, to control what is taught in public schools. But parents are also voters, and, if they are angry, highly motivated voters, who do have the right, as voters, to control what is taught in public schools. They also, as Bruni points out, have the right to put their kids in private schools or to home school them. If enough people choose private schools or home schooling, public support for public education will evaporate, the public schools will deteriorate, and even more people will leave the public school system.
From a pragmatic point of view, parents collectively have some power to decide what will be taught in public schools, if we want a broadly funded public school system.
What this means is that compromise is necessary.
The Centrist Independent Voter suggests, in the public policy discussion on K-12 educational content, that the civics and U.S. history curriculum ought to be such that a super majority of Americans (this includes parents) would agree that it is reasonable. I think that it is probably safe to say that this same rule should apply to sex education in K-12. As I have said, in an earlier blog post, I think this can be accomplished for civics and U.S. history. I am less confident that we can reach a super majority acceptable point of view on sex education, but that is what we need to be striving for.
Bruni is right. The purpose of public schools is “the cultivation of citizens who better appreciate our democracy and can participate in it more knowledgeably and productively.” However, it is, ultimately, the voting public, which includes many highly motivated parents, that gets to decide how that democracy should be described. We also need to remember that students cannot be cultivated by the public schools if they are not in the public schools, or if the public schools cannot function for lack of funding.
At the risk of repeating myself, compromise is necessary.