For the past two years, two distinct but connected phenomena have dominated American schooling. The first of these is the COVID-19 pandemic and its associated school closures, mask and vaccine mandates, and forced online learning. The second is the rapacious embrace of racial and gender identity politics in K-12 classrooms. The latter, of course, has been permeating American education for many years but was thrown into acute focus following the killing of George Floyd in 2020.
Students’ largely helpless parents, meanwhile, have had to watch their children face undue social isolation, lose foundational years of behavioral and intellectual development, or be told that the color of their skin marks them as either indelibly wicked or hopelessly oppressed. School board meetings gave these parents a chance to be heard; elections, for both school board and statewide offices, made sure someone was listening. And this rational, peaceful exercise in civic life was met with outrage from education officials, unions, and their supporters.
That row was useful in one important way: It elevated the questions, “What role should parents play in their children’s education?” and “What role should teachers play in moral instruction?”
The near-uniform answers offered by Democratic politicians, interest groups, and the educational establishment are revealing, if unsurpising. To the first question: none. To the second: whatever role they please.
Former Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe stated plainly during his failed gubernatorial campaign late last year: “I don’t think parents should be telling schools what they should teach.” To the extent an election outcome can be attributed to a single cause, this answer is arguably the foremost reason for his losing in a blue state. This was no gaffe, however; McAuliffe simply enunciated a belief widely held among the Left.
“I don’t really understand this idea that parents should decide what’s being taught,” Nikole Hannah-Jones, the progenitor of the New York Times Magazine's historically inept “1619 Project,” said in December. In January, in response to the promulgation of legislation that would at least make clear what children are being taught, the American Civil Liberties Union — the irony of that name increases daily — declared on Twitter that “curriculum transparency bills are just thinly veiled attempts at chilling teachers and students from learning and talking about race and gender in schools.” An associate executive director for the Oklahoma Education Association (the state’s largest teachers union) complained recently that “the only contact legislators were receiving was coming from angry parents who were frustrated with what was happening in schools.” “Parents that have never been involved before now want to take over school boards,” she worried.
According to New York magazine’s Sarah Jones, parents’ desire to have a say in their children’s education is actually a ploy to expand the power of the Republican Party, which is “ever eager to privatize education.” “Conservatives imagine the parent as a household tyrant; their rights both supersede and are in conflict with the rights of the child. Key to this is the parent’s role as a local enforcer of the GOP's national agenda,” she wrote. Ever eager to exhibit his capacity for sophistry, the Nation's Jeet Heer expanded the thought yet further: “The patriarchal household is the seed of all authoritarianism. This is one reason why ‘social issues’ and ‘the political’ can never be separated,” he opined on Twitter.
This sentiment, shared by Democratic politicians, union flunkies, leftist ideologues, and teachers alike, is not a recent development: On the contrary, central to the long-standing ideology undergirding the American education system is the proposition that schooling is meant to liberate students from the values and assumptions of their parents. Political scientist Melissa Harris-Perry summed up this perspective succinctly back in 2013, saying, “We have to break through our kind of private idea that kids belong to their parents or kids belong to their families and recognize that kids belong to whole communities.” This belief is central to the invasive, ambiguous collectivism then-first lady Hillary Clinton attempted to dress up in aw-shucks colloquialisms in her 1996 book, It Takes a Village. (“It takes a village to raise a child. The village is Washington. You are the child. There, I’ve spared you from reading the worst book to come out of the Clinton administration since — let’s be fair — the last one,” mocked the late-great P.J. O’Rourke.)
In her influential 1987 book Democratic Education, former University of Pennsylvania President (and current U.S. Ambassador to Germany) Amy Gutmann argues that all significant policy regarding education operates from “a theory, a political theory, of the proper role of government in education” and warns against those theories that “depoliticize education by placing it as much as possible in the province of parental authority.” Setting aside Gutmann’s dubious conclusions for a moment, she is absolutely correct in her originating assertion: Debates over education are inherently value-laden, and among those value judgments lies a question regarding the proper role of government in educating its citizenry.
This is the messy debate so many parents find themselves in today. The issue of who teaches students and how, the extent of a parent’s say over a child’s curriculum or classroom environment, the role of the government in proscribing or allowing certain methods of instruction or doctrine — these are all questions about values, and there’s no getting around that. As the American Enterprise Institute’s Robert Pondiscio put it recently, “Schools are the institutions we build to transmit to children the values, habits, stories, and ideas we value: in a word, our culture. To think there should be no debate about what that comprises is to misunderstand entirely what a school is and the purpose it serves in civil society.” (Disclosure: I previously worked at AEI as an education policy researcher.)
This is not a new debate, mind you. As Melissa Moschella recounts in her terrific To Whom Do Children Belong?, “Throughout the history of the United States, there have been recurring controversies over the relative scope and limits of parental educational authority as against state educational authority, particularly as the state began to take on an increasingly more prominent educational role in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. These controversies have given rise to famous Supreme Court cases like Meyers v. Nebraska and Pierce v. Society of Sisters, which proclaimed the existence of a fundamental constitutional right of parents to direct the education and upbringing of their children.”
Despite this, there remains a discomfort among parents, especially those who consider themselves not very political, and even conservatives when it comes to discussing values in the realm of education. This is due to an explicit attempt in recent decades to pretend that mass public education could be somehow value-neutral, that schools were simply in the business of transmitting information dispassionately and equipping students with a clinical, heuristic problem-solving ability. A prominent example of this collective sense (and its limitations) was in the debate over sex education instruction in the '90s and early aughts: the relativistic idea that no one is imposing values or beliefs about “right and wrong,” we are merely going to tell students their options, outline potential consequences, and let them decide for themselves.
Education reforms over the past several decades have also shied away from values instruction or moral content, from things that could get it embroiled in “the culture war.” Great Society-era reforms sought to remedy racial disparities in educational attainment through massive federal expenditures (we have never really left this mindset, to be clear). Following “A Nation At Risk” in 1983, education reformers aimed their sights almost exclusively toward educational achievement metrics, because they were worried that lagging scores threatened the international competitiveness of America’s workforce. International competitiveness soon gave way to parental and class worries about economic mobility and lifetime earnings. No Child Left Behind-era reforms pursued technocratic measures such as teacher accountability and proficiency thresholds, in the hope such interventions would raise graduation rates and thus increase college-going — again, mostly as a matter of economic mobility and poverty reduction, not of character formation or the molding of citizens. Even the broader, largely conservative-led school choice movement has for much of the past two decades taken great pains to sell the benefits of choice in the language of achievement gaps and equity in an attempt to garner bipartisan support and funding.
This pretense of value-less education, whether that was ever truly the case on the ground, is something of a novelty in the history of American schooling. As Carl Kaestle details in his book Pillars of the Republic: Common Schools and American Society, 1780-1860, in early American schooling, “The upward mobility of the students was incidental. The main thrust was moral education, and literacy was directed more to this purpose than to individual advancement.” The Founders considered education necessary in helping to reconcile freedom with order, and they sought to instill a unifying, republican virtue into the citizenry by way of a thoroughly American curriculum. “Begin with the infant in his cradle,” wrote Noah Webster in 1790. “Let the first word he lisps be ‘Washington.’” Less nobly, 19th-century reformers would employ some of the very same logic of the government’s superiority over parents used by Gutmann and Jones as justification for often bigoted and racist contentions regarding African American or immigrant students, who they thought needed to be saved from the supposed moral and intellectual failures of their parents. “Unlike rural district schooling, urban charity schooling was designed to intervene between parents and children, to introduce children to a culture and morality that reformers believed was different from that of their parents. Of course, many parents among resourceless and alien groups shared the reformers’ values of respectability, order, deference, and industry, but this did not impress white leaders as much as the cultural differences, the poverty, and the high arrest records of blacks and other urban newcomers,” explains Kaestle.
Education can never truly be value-less. As parents across the country are learning, the very idea that a parent has a right to be involved in what his or her child is taught is itself up for debate as a value matter, and those in command of much of the public education apparatus disagree vehemently. The relativistic aspiration of a value-neutral education was always unsustainable, says the Washington Examiner's Tim Carney, “and it was also somewhat dishonest: You’re always imposing some kind of values.” “There’s a bigger picture here, this arc of the Left preaching a relativism that never could be sustainable,” he explains. “But this relativism functioned to clear out other religions and value-sets. And then into that vacuum has to come something.”
That “something“ turned out to be the assumptions and values of the Left, quietly at first, then irrepressibly loud. From Black Lives Matter-style Marxism to environmental extremism, critical race theory, gender identity politics, and so on, we are told everything is and must be political, and thus all education is political. For instance, as Christopher Rufo points out, the National Education Association, “which represents more than 3 million public school employees, explicitly endorsed critical race theory and other radical ideologies” in its platform last year. “This year, the organization is fighting to block parents from knowing whether its members have implemented these unpopular pedagogies in the classroom.”
For reasons such as this, it is hard to overstate the importance of the debate over the proper role of parents in their children’s education. It is necessary for conservatives, then, to full-throatedly defend the right of parents to bring their children up in the virtues they so wish, to enunciate the reasons why this is necessary and good, and to promote through policy and politics the legal and practical ability to do so.
The authority of parents over their child is the originating relationship of authority for all existence; thus, it predates that of the state. Yet it is not, as Heer claims, an inherently authoritarian construction, one of tyranny. Whether owing to biology, natural law, religious and/or secular morality, or whatever ideology you wish to credit, this relationship is one primed toward the encouragement of human flourishing. Freedom without restraint or order is not liberty; it is ruinous license. More practically for our purposes, as Moschella explains, “Parental authority is primary and aims directly at the overall well-being of the child, while the state’s authority over education in most respects is indirect and subsidiary to that of parents. Only with respect to specifically civic (rather than childcentered) aims does the state have direct educational authority. With regard to the child-centered aims of education, the state’s role is to support parents in carrying out their obligations, rather than to bypass or usurp parental educational authority, except in cases of abuse or neglect.”
The right of parents to be involved in a matter so central to raising their child is so obvious that it should be unnecessary to defend. Less clear, however, is how best to enshrine that right in policy. When it comes to practical tactics, some conservatives welcome the culture war as a motivating argument. “The school choice movement needs to embrace the culture war,” the Heritage Foundation’s Jay P. Greene tells me. (Disclosure: I was an undergraduate research assistant for Dr. Greene at the University of Arkansas.) “That is, we have to recognize that there’s a value dispute going on. And we can’t pretend that we are indifferent to parents’ concerns on these issues or write them off as racists and bigots. If they are concerned about these issues, over CRT or gender identity or even progressive concerns, we should say, ‘We understand that you’re concerned, and we have a solution for you that might help resolve this problem,’ which is school choice.” Put another way: “School choice gives parents what they want, regardless of which side they are on.”
But choice isn’t the only option. Conservative education reformers such as Rufo and Max Eden stress the necessity of state-level reforms, such as the curriculum transparency bills currently being considered in many states. Eden, specifically, advocates making school board elections on-cycle elections, that is, during typical congressional and presidential voting years, and making candidates identify with political party affiliation. In this way, communities can be more aware of the realities of whom they are choosing to put in charge of their local schools.
As for the culture war, conservatives should continue to push back against the ahistorical picture of America and crippling, existential fatalism that currently pervade schooling. “Worst of all,” Pondiscio wrote recently in Commentary, “this pedagogy of the depressed — America the Problematic — is thought to be a virtue among professional educators who view it as a mark of seriousness and sophistication. We want children to grapple with ‘honest history’ starting in elementary school and to discover the power of their voices by writing authentic essays about their personal problems. Small wonder, then, that children are more depressed and medicated than ever before.” Pluralism necessitates the space for competing visions or beliefs, as should be the case, but one of the central interests for a nation to educate its citizenry should involve a healthy, acculturative narrative of that nation’s virtues and ideals. America is not perfect, and that should not be forgotten or obscured, but neither should our ever-ongoing journey toward the ideal of a more perfect union that has existed since the beginning.
It is high time for not just parents but all Americans to begin asking some fundamental questions about education. While we are grappling with the role of parents in schooling, perhaps we can venture to an even deeper level: “What is the purpose of education?” we should ask. Followed swiftly by, “What do we want the next generations of Americans to think about America?”
J. Grant Addison is deputy editor of the Washington Examiner magazine.