Parental choice and parental guidance are essential
Conservatives are sometimes faulted for having one answer, school choice, any time education comes up.
To be clear: School choice, the power of a family to take their state school aid to another district, a public charter school or even to a private school that suits them, cannot be the only tool Wisconsin uses to fix education.
But as some lawmakers made clear in a recent debate over what traditional district schools should tell parents, it surely is a necessary tool. Rep. Dave Considine, arguing against a commonsense measure to require schools to be open with parents, told the Wisconsin Assembly the other day, “We have this mantra that I hear all the time from across the aisle that parents know best. That’s wrong!”
“Parents don’t always know best,” he said.
That’ll make parents start looking around for some leverage.
Considine was arguing in that Jan. 18 debate against Assembly Bill 510, billed as a “parents’ bill of rights.” The bill makes it a matter of law that parents “have the right to determine the religion of the child” and the “educational setting” the child will attend. It lists things that government and its schools must be open about with parents, such as whether it plans to offer lessons on a list of contentious topics, what the content of lessons are, whether children want to use a new name and pronouns at school.
The Assembly passed it, 62-35. Should the state Senate pass it, Gov. Tony Evers has promised to veto it, as he did similar legislation last session, when he said it was aimed at “dividing our schools.”
Dividing? True enough: The bill says that parents have a right to be told if a school plans to teach “content that is not age-appropriate,” and of late, people differ on what “age-appropriate” exactly means. People are divided about whether schools are properly teaching reading, and schools are going way past that into meaning-of-life topics.
That’s where school choice comes in. About 9 out of 10 Wisconsin kids go to a traditional district public school. If those schools are academically weak or teaching children controversial political notions, parents need the power to bring about change in their public schools, because for most of them, that’s where their children will remain.
But to bring about change, parents need to know what a school is teaching. They also need the leverage to object. School choice is not the only tool, but it is a necessary first tool, because parents’ power to change schools comes from their power to leave schools for better ones.
Who and whom?
Since cultural issues are at present hotter than talking about reading proficiency rates, much of the Assembly debate revolved around how the bill states that parents have a right to determine the pronouns their children use at school. Because it does that, said Rep. Melissa Ratcliff of Cottage Grove, it “directly risks undermining the dignity and identity” of students. Schools “should be a sanctuary,” she said — saying, that is, that schools should help young children keep secrets from parents or, when those parents balk at playing along with a social contagion, side with the child.
Considine, who spent 29 years teaching in the Baraboo Public Schools, told a story about an abusive parent before drawing the conclusion that school is all about “giving kids the ability to grow beyond their parents or maybe in a different way.” Give parents a heads-up on upcoming lessons about sexual mores or racialist content? No need, said Considine, indignant, because “it does take a village to raise a child.”
“It’s yet another culture war,” said Rep. Robyn Vining of Wauwatosa about the bill, “a direct attack on Wisconsin’s public schools.”
But who is attacking whom? When did it become the expectation that when a girl says she’s a boy, schools will go along without asking her parents, perhaps without telling them? Did we have a vote to change the nature of parenthood?
Say you’re a parent and you think it’s your kid’s own business what pronouns she uses. Fine: It makes no difference to you whether the school asks or not. No parent is compelled to weigh in.
Those objecting to the bill instead are saying that no parent — what do they know anyhow? — should be permitted to weigh in.
Pardon, but they should. That is why, though Evers will veto it, parents do need a law instructing schools to be transparent with them. It’s not because they’re always right — they aren’t — but our society’s assumption is that, until proven otherwise, parents are the most reliable protectors of the children they named at birth. They need to know what is happening in schools.
And they need school choice. So does our society, if we’re to live peacefully. Having different schools for different worldviews means that if we disagree about whether a child can change pronouns and her sex, schooling need not be a winner-take-all war where the future is determined by whomever liberates other people’s children to “grow beyond” their parents’ beliefs.
In this, National School Choice Week, it’s worth remembering that every parent, including those using public schools, benefits from the underlying assumption of school choice: that it is parents who have the responsibility to see to the proper raising of their children, and to do that, they need to know what the village is teaching those children and the ability to overrule the village, if necessary.
Patrick McIlheran is the Director of Policy at the Badger Institute. Permission to reprint is granted as long as the author and Badger Institute are properly cited.
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