Parents’ Rights in Public Schools

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.

Ben Franklin, Ken Burns, and a National Civics Curriculum

I just finished watching the Ken Burns’ Documentary on Benjamin Franklin. I recommend it as great television. I was struck by how it was both honest and respectful in its approach to one of America’s founding fathers.

I was also impressed by how it provided a very balanced approach to American history. It gave me hope that we might actually be able to construct a common U.S. history and civics curriculum. The Centrist Independent Voter addresses the need for developing a common U.S. history and civics curriculum for K-12. The important points raised in that discussion are that the curriculum needs to be: age appropriate; honest about America’s failures to live up to its aspirations; and respectful of the institutions and values that are at the core of what it means to be American. It also needs to represent a point of view that a supermajority (say 75%) of Americans would be comfortable presenting to their children.

I think that the Ken Burns documentary meets all, or almost all, of those criteria. It might be appropriate delaying some of the subjects covered until middle school, but even those subjects are handled tactfully.

America is not united by a common ethnicity, race, or religion. We share a common language, but we share that language with much of the world. What makes America exceptional is its commitment to a common set of values expressed in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. America has been at its best when it has lived up to those values; it has been at its worst when it has failed to do so.

The Ken Burns documentary of Ben Franklin captures all of that, while providing interesting insights into the life of what some historians believe was the “First American.”