Parental authority is at the heart of school choice

Editor’s note: This entry comes from John E. Coons, who has championed the cause of school choice for four decades and co-founded the American Center for School Choice. He is Professor of Law Emeritus at the University of California, Berkeley, and with colleague Stephen D. Sugarman is the author of Private Wealth and Public Education. He is our newest host of redefinED.

We founded the American Center for School Choice because we believe a focus on parental empowerment can contribute to a broadening and coalescing of the coalition that seeks to provide the best possible education for children. Simultaneously, empowering parents creates a common good—for the child, the parent, the family, and society.

We begin with the delicate subject of authority—that of parent or of government over the mind of the young. In our culture, authority over thought (or even behavior) has never been a popular premise for argument. But no other way exists; some adult will in fact select a preferred set of skills and values and will attempt, through schooling, to convince Johnny, Susie, Jamal, or Juanita of their truth. Authority is simply a fact.

Whether one is Democrat, Republican, Libertarian, or the National Education Association, we must proceed by asking which big person will decide this issue for some little person. The fact of authority is no exit, but it is instead the necessary entrance to the debate of educators and society about content, values, money, liberty, the best interest of the child, and the common good.

The debate on authority dates from Plato’s vision in the The Republic of an ideal state that would completely disempower parents for a utopian common good and continues up to modern times. But in the U.S., the question of who has authority over the child has been universally resolved in all 50 states in favor of parents. In every state the custodial parent, whether natural or adoptive, holds a very wide ranging legal authority over his, her, or their own child. This sovereignty includes every experience of the child that the parent can physically and intellectually control short of neglect and abuse. It encompasses diet, hours, church, pets, exercise, and television as well as the power to decide who else shall have access to the child. This power to control access and environment includes, again, within broadest limits, the satisfaction of the parents’ obligation to school the child and the child’s own right to be schooled.

This authority has been tested in a steady line of Supreme Court cases since 1925. The parent who is legally fit to govern—99% of our parents—in truth has the right to govern. And the point of the law is not that parents make particularly good decisions for the children; individual mothers and fathers may or may not act in what you or I consider the best interest of the child or society. They are not necessarily good deciders; they are merely the best our culture, law, and history have discovered. They also have accountability in ways that are impossible to the world of American professionals, of doctors, lawyers, educators, and so forth. These people see clients for a time, do their best, wish them well, and head on home. The custodial parent is stuck—for better or worse and maybe for life—with what emerges out of whatever effort is made.

This wide acceptance throughout American society and its legal system of deference to and accountability for parental authority forms the foundation for broadening the support for choice in education. Our current system is an aberration of the way the rest of American life functions.

Since my childhood the demography and the very meaning of schooling have become, more and more, a tale of two cities. People like me now school our boys and girls in the one city; people less lucky do so in the other. The long tempest about race has no doubt played its part in this epic drift, but whether the law and politics of race was a necessary condition of what we have today no one can really say. My own guess is that, given the balkanized organization of government schools, our differences in economic class would have been sufficient to separate us by our wealth. Few of the actors in this play that was begun in mid-19th century foresaw or intended this outcome, nor did the people who skipped to suburbia; they merely acted in prudent response to what seemed social and economic opportunity, or they lived with the lack of it. Parents who could do so took their kids to what seemed a better place. They looked at the schools and paid the necessary tuition that was represented in the price of the housing in this school district or attendance area.

To this day we call these schools “public,” and, of course, in one sense they are; they exist, for the most part, on tax money. But I urge you to reflect on your own understanding of the term “public.” The word is, of course, ambiguous, but I can’t shake the feeling that its use in ordinary conversation implies a sort of place that is accessible to everyone. So it is that Central Park is public, or the mall is public. For the man in the street the sidewalks that he paid for welcome him during his good behavior. What else could we have meant but open access when we gave government schools this magic label, this democratic halo? And if a parent can only buy his or her way into a tax-supported school, what makes us so afraid to recognize that our retreats in Beverly Hills (or the Berkeley Hills) are in fact more private, more exclusive, than any inner-city church school? We talk public, but we act private—and, of course, I include myself.

We should ask seriously how it is that any person of goodwill could justify this crude disenfranchising of working parents and the poor. Could it be in limiting choice to those who can afford it, we have taken the course most likely to increase and cement class segregation? I should have thought that the egalitarians among us would long since have invoked the 14th Amendment. Nor can the defense of such a system be a simple resort to the Establishment Clause. In America, if the state prefers, parents can by law, and could in practice, be empowered in fact to make choices that include religious or any other authentic school. Those who can afford it do so, and no one objects. It is regarded as their business and indeed is generally admired. By the way, the outcomes seem no worse for the fact of parental choice.

Plainly, parental empowerment can’t exist unless the parent has the power to enforce his or her own rules or decisions. I want to extend the point in an obvious way. You can’t be a responsible person unless you have authority. The popular talk about parental responsibility needs to include this premise. Bill Cosby picks on parents who disengage from school. He’s right, but this stick of his has two ends. Passivity and despair are the response of powerless parents to the predicament we’ve arranged for them. It is the classic recipe for impotence and withdrawal by the adult and bewilderment by the child who learns that the role of parent carries little social or moral weight.

Whatever family may mean, if you value it, you’d better see to it that the not-so-rich American parent has real authority over who has access to the child’s mind for the prime hours of 13 years of his or her life.

Oddly enough, there is no research testing the effects of having and not having choice upon the self-perceptions of either the child or parent, or upon their perception of authority as an interrelation. The American Center would like to see this oversight in the empirical world corrected. Both Coleman and Bryk told us of the communitarian impact of parental choice on the school, but empirically we have only the common belief and practice of the middle class from which to infer the actual effects on parents and children as they choose or get chosen for—as they exercise or experience authority. And we know even less about the minds of the other half as parent and child realize that strangers now define and control the main event in the daily life of the boy or girl.

The consequence of allowing strangers to make educational choices for children is damage to the family and the broader society. The American Center for School Choice wants to bring this school choice debate to the center of our political spectrum around what is broadly recognized as a centrist and established American value—parents have authority for their children.