National School Choice Week? No, National Parental Choice Week!

Schools should act subordinate to and on behalf of parents

We are in the midst of “National School Choice Week.” It runs January 21-27. I unequivocally support the idea of school choice. But I would rename this observance to “National Parental Choice Week.” Why? Because I think it is imperative that we recast the debate to answer the question Who is education for?  [For more on this question, see here.] Reread that question. The interrogative pronoun is critical. Who is education for? I think we would all instinctively answer, “for students.” Who else could it be for? Well, then why is money directed not to students but to schools? Education, after all, isn’t for schools. It’s the thing schools are supposed to provide.

We recognize a pluralism of choice in education. A child and his parent or guardian, who naturally decide a minor’s best interests, can meet compulsory schooling laws in many ways. They can comply through public schools, religious private schools, secular private schools, charter schools, or home-schooling. As long as the institution meets minimal curricular standards, it meets the state’s requirement that a child be educated.

So, if all those institutions provide what the state requires, why is only one given a unique monopoly on public funds — including funds extracted from parents who make other choices?

Most of the people who want to channel more money to “education” are also votaries of equality. So how do they square their professed commitments to “equality” with a system that makes some choices “more equal” than others? How do they defend the “privileged” position they confer on public schools? How are they — often the folks who insist the state should pay to kill unborn children under Medicaid or Obamacare because “poor women are financially deprived of choices rich women have” — able to say that the state tilting the financial deck against parental exercise of a Constitutional right is not discriminatory and unequitable? After all, we are a year away from the centennial of Pierce v. Society of Sisters, the Supreme Court decision that declared it was unconstitutional to compel parents only to attend public schools. That ruling has been in place nearly 100 years; it’s a “super-duper-real-big-lollapalooza” precedent, to adapt a late U.S. senator’s term. Do they really mean what they say? Or is it selective rhetoric to protect their preferences and political pals?

Coming back to my question: To suggest that education is for schools would be nonsensical. Schools don’t need to be educated; they need to educate. Students need to be educated. And, if money is the means by which the work of education occurs, then why is it not going to students rather than schools? After all, once we pass K-12, nobody says student financial aid can only be used at state colleges or universities. Nobody says Pell Grants can’t be taken to Notre Dame or Brandeis or St. Olaf or Brigham Young. In fact, we probably have a president willing to “cancel” (i.e., shift the cost to the taxpayer) the debt for all those grants, at public and private schools.

So why are public elementary and secondary schools treated as sacred cows? Inquiring minds want to know…

The truth is that elites have always captured and wanted to give a monopoly to public schools because they fulfill their ideological agendas. A century ago, in an era of resurgent anti-Catholicism, that goal was cultural-religious. Just as an old cartoon showed all sorts of foreign workers in national costumes going into an auto plant and emerging as homogenized WASP “American” workers in overalls, so the elites envisioned public schools as taking Micks, Spics, Wops, and Polacks (the “N-words” of their day) to produce white-bread generic Protestants, in mindset if not formal allegiance. Later, as the education profession itself was further ideologized by the likes of John Dewey et al., public schools were to take kids who might be repressed by parents who wanted more for them through readin’, ‘ritin’, and ‘rithmatic and instead produce “life-long learners” “exploring” their curiosities, bereft of a fund of knowledge that actually might make them think critically about what they’re being fed.

Today, those schools — which still don’t teach readin’, ‘ritin’, and ‘rithmatic — have a more woke mission: replacing your values in your child, confusing your child about his biology, and hiding that whole agenda from you “for the good of the child.” (If you doubt that schools have dumbed down reading, note that this blogging platform rates each post’s “readability” — and deems this one “fairly difficult.”)

Calling this week “National Parental Choice Week” would not just recognize the primacy of parents in choosing the education appropriate for their child, but also institutionalize the principle that schools act subordinate to and on behalf of parents, not as self-anointed “partners” of parents. Schools did not give this child life and — particularly when they insist on financially monopolizing my choice of opportunities for my child — so they had better realize you work for me. If that’s called “domestic terrorism,” call DOJ.

It is imperative that parents reassert being parents — toward their children and toward those who, in collaboration with parents, work to educate those children. This starts with recognizing that parents should have the choice and financial flexibility to exercise that choice among any institution or setup (including home-schooling) that meets the state’s requirements for compulsory education. Anything less is systemic discrimination preserving a system of privilege. Privilege is not sanctified when it is approved by Randi Weingarten.

Catholic social thought, of course, has always affirmed that parents are the primary and best educators of their children. Schools are parental delegates; they act in loco parentis. Parents do not act in loco scholae. 

If Catholic social thought is our “best kept secret,” let’s start broadcasting that insight far and wide, especially in this election year. Because I think it will obtain a very broad ecumenical reception. It might even set off a political earthquake.


John M. Grondelski (Ph.D., Fordham) was former associate dean of the School of Theology, Seton Hall University, South Orange, New Jersey. All views expressed herein are exclusively his.

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