Framing school choice as parent empowerment

Most parents try to protect their child from dangers, to nourish their child’s development, and to instill values and a sense of purpose in their child so that, as he or she matures, each child will be able to make sensible choices for his or her own life path.

Yet, most parents need government assistance in order to promote their children’s best interests. For one thing, if left unchecked outside forces may overwhelm parental efforts. These include the child’s peers, undesirable cultural and commercial influences, and so on. In addition, family poverty and ignorance may prevent parents from effectively carrying out their roles.

To be clear, parents need help, not only from extended family members and the community at large, but also from government. For example, public regulation can increase parental power and authority over their children by preventing others (like retail cigarette sellers) from tempting children into self-destructive behaviors. The state can also provide information (or require others to provide information, like movie ratings) that parents need to enable them to make good decisions for their children. Moreover, government can provide resources (like food stamps) that some parents lack. In all of these power-enhancing ways, government can help parents better fulfill their responsibilities to their children.

Sometimes, in the name of “child protection,” government reduces rather than enhances parental power. To be sure, as a last resort it may be necessary to substitute collective or professional decisions as to what is best for children. Yet policymakers may be too quick to override parental control when further empowering parents would, overall, be best for children.

Other times, government actions are misleadingly framed as “child protection” measures that, on closer analysis, may be better understood as actually parent-empowering (like issuing teenage driving licenses that limit when youths may drive and who may be in the car with them).

Add to that this key point: it may often be politically easier to win the adoption of a policy when it is understood as helping people be good parents than when it is understood as curtailing parental authority. Isn’t helping people be good parents something on which conservatives (the “family values” groups) and liberals (who talk of “personal empowerment”) agree? By contrast, the constituency may be narrower for “child protection” measures, especially those that are seen to push a large share of parents around because “legislators or experts know better.”

Take the problem of childhood obesity, for example. Getting colas out of middle school vending machines and junk food commercials off TV programs aimed at children ages eight and younger removes temptations that parents generally would like to be out of sight. Policies that would achieve those ends empower parents to have more control over what their children eat. This is not the nanny state. Parents who still want to feed their kids Froot Loops and have them drink Cokes are free to do that.

Finally, then, consider the debate over school vouchers (or scholarships) for children from households of modest means. They should not be defended on the ground that this mechanism will improve the test scores of America’s children or that it will destroy teachers’ unions and unleash the wondrous innovations of capitalism. Those are collective objectives that some people favor (and others oppose, doubt, or care little about). Rather, subsidized school choice is best promoted on the ground that it empowers additional families to make decisions for their children that nearly all parents want to be able to make. Just like food stamps, school scholarships for needy families can help parents be better parents.

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BY Stephen D. Sugarman

Professor of law, University of California at Berkeley, author with John E. Coons of Private Wealth and Public Education and Education by Choice

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