In case you left the solar system for a few weeks and missed the election headlines, Republicans captured the Virginia governor’s chair. They won in part because their candidate managed to attract suburban Republican and independent voters without inciting Trump Republicans to kick him off the island. There was also a dispute about school library books that some parents judged “sexually explicit.” The Republican’s assertion “parents should be in charge of their kids’ education” played better than the Democrat’s response that parents shouldn’t “be telling schools what they should teach.”
In the debate about parent involvement, both statements are true and false.
A while back, one of Poor Elijah’s colleagues was lamenting that the usual suspects weren’t completing any homework. All she wanted was for someone to agree that not doing any work tends to make students less than successful. Unfortunately, the principal overheard her and reflexively decided to convene a committee. Naturally, parents and community members would have a voice in determining new homework procedures.
Poor Elijah respects the rights and prerogatives of parents. He believes wholeheartedly that parents are sovereign in their children’s lives and that he is accountable to parents and to their community. That doesn’t mean, though, that people, including parents, shouldn’t cultivate a healthy sense of humility when it comes to things they don’t know much about. Root canal, transmission overhaul and teaching other people’s children all qualify as areas of ignorance for most citizens. Simply possessing a gearshift, your original 12-year molars, a child or two or a graduate degree in education doesn’t make you an expert.
Besides, the only new homework procedure they needed was that certain students would start doing it. Unfortunately, this happened to be the real problem, and many Americans today are more comfortable dealing with counterfeit solutions than with real problems. In education, this particularly applies to progressive reformers. In politics, it’s become a signature failing of Republicans.
Poor Elijah less than tactfully likened the principal’s community participation proposal to a committee of cardiac patients deciding how long bypass surgery should take, but she reassured him she wasn’t looking for expertise, nor for many teachers. Apparently, you don’t want too many teachers on a homework committee, any more presumably than you’d want the Joint Chiefs overloaded with generals and admirals. She wanted happy parents, and a happy parent is an empowered parent.
If Poor Elijah compiled a dictionary, “empowerment” would have two definitions: “authority in the absence of expertise” and “impotence in the guise of command.” Either way, by the principal’s reasoning, interested taxpayers all deserve a chance to skipper an aircraft carrier.
It’s not that parents aren’t supremely concerned when it comes to their children’s education. As your child’s teacher, I’m a trustee and a public servant. That said, I can’t satisfy every parent’s individual expectations. I serve too many masters. That’s the difference between a domestic servant and a public servant. It’s also the difference between a chauffeured limousine and Amtrak.
Schools are a public utility. They can’t meet everyone’s needs and wants all the time, despite what many experts tell you, any more than everyone can live near enough to a highway to shorten their commute but far enough away that they don’t have to listen to traffic.
When I was a boy, I learned that my parents’ taxes paid policemen’s salaries. I understood, however, that even though this meant the police worked for my parents, my father couldn’t tell policemen what to do.
In the same way, he couldn’t tell my school what to do. He could complain — with civility — and appeal up the chain of command, he could send me to another school, and today, he could teach me at home. Ultimately, he could cast his vote for a sympathetic candidate or run for the school board himself.
That’s how representative government works.
No individual owns a public school. My taxes may subsidize Amtrak, but that doesn’t mean I get to set the schedule. Yes, I help pay the bills. I even ride the trains. But I don’t own the railroad.
What would happen if I camped out on the interstate or painted my own lines or demanded my own personal speed limit or enforced it on everyone else? Can I order the highway department to regrade the pavement to suit my car’s suspension? Is it a violation of my civil rights or liberty if I decide to drive backwards and a trooper stops me? After all, it’s my highway and my personal driving style.
Absurdities like these are permitted, even encouraged, in American education. The irate parent and the aberrant student are too often the movers and shakers in the daily life of public schools.
The same lunacy has infected our political discourse.
I don’t mean that parents can’t ask questions or complain or work to change things. But how often should private citizens like you and me, singly or in packs, be granted de facto license to dictate living and learning conditions in the common house where the nation’s children spend their days?
How often should we presume to demand it?
Don’t misunderstand. Poor Elijah’s not against parent involvement. He’s fervently in favor of it. He’s in favor of parents helping their children study. He’s in favor of parents enjoying the right to teach their children right and wrong. He’s in favor of parents teaching their children a healthy, wholesome, responsible attitude toward drugs, sex, personal hygiene, and all the other formerly parental realms our schools have unwisely inherited. He’s in favor of parents reigning at the summit of their children’s lives.
He’s in favor of parents sending their children to school with a sense of responsibility and with the understanding that school is more than the place you go to find what you can’t find at home anymore.
Then he can teach them to read.
Peter Berger has taught English and history for 30 years. Poor Elijah would be pleased to answer letters addressed to him in care of the editor.