Acton Commentary

Who's the Boss? Why Government Schools Fear Parental Involvement


The statement of Pope Paul VI cited above from his 1968 declaration on Christian Education, Gravissimum educationis , takes a clear-eyed view of the role of parents in the education of their children. This role of parents, as first and fundamental teachers of their children, is irreplaceable. In the same spirit, the Catechism of the Catholic Church says “the right and duty of parents to educate their children are primordial and inalienable.”

However, as each year passes, it becomes ever more clear that this right is being alienated from parents by the government school system. A recent example came on February 24 when a 12-year-old student at Belpre Middle School, a government school in Belpre, Ohio, was given a three-day suspension for bringing to school the swimsuit issue of Sports Illustrated . While one may legitimately be concerned about the moral implications of a sixth-grader bringing this magazine to school, the reaction of the school administrators was clearly out of line.

The boy was cited for violating a code of conduct by his “possession of lewd or suggestive material,” and by engaging in “nonverbal harassment.” He was initially given a punishment of spending two days at a local alternative school, where several districts send students when they get in trouble. The boy’s mother, however, objected to this course of action, saying it was too harsh and that “the punishment doesn’t fit the crime.” So administrators upped the ante. The punishment was then changed to three days’ out-of-school suspension.

The increase from a two-day to a three-day punishment was a penalty imposed by the principal, Kathy Garrison, in response to a mother’s exercising her parental rights. Further, the Belpre superintendent Tim Swarr was quoted by the Associated Press as saying, “Last time I checked, we were in charge of running the schools.” Taken in tandem, the increase in the boy’s punishment and the superintendent’s statement could be interpreted as a signal to parents: Get involved in the school’s disciplinary policies, and your child will suffer the consequences.

Parents whose children attend public schools do have an obligation to support the disciplinary measures in place, insofar as they are just and applied equitably. In the context of the educational establishment’s intractable opposition to many reforms that are popular with parents and children, however, the Belpre incident is troubling. Government schools have long been accustomed to doing more or less what they like with little or no parental oversight. Although many teachers and principals officially tout the benefits of parental involvement, they become nervous when parents actually do get involved. They fear parents and seek to stop them from making choices about which schools their children will attend, about the curriculum used in their children’s instruction, and about the punishments used in the schools.

Parents are charged by God with the duty to see to their children’s spiritual formation and moral education. This charge cannot be disregarded by the parents, and cannot be dismissed by government school mandate. Rather, teachers in government schools must understand that their role is to assist the parents and that they are not on opposing teams but are partners in the task of education. This requires a dose of humility on the part of teachers and administrators and an end to comments and actions like those undertaken by Mr. Swarr and Ms. Garrison. It also requires parents to acknowledge that they have a role in their children’s education and that they should not be content to allow government schools to teach their children whatever the schools wish. Parents must be willing to take an active role in the education of their children, a role that is not limited simply to attending parent-teacher conferences once per semester.

Attitudes and actions that foster an adversarial relationship between parents, teachers, and administrators are in no one’s best interest, and certainly not in the best interest of students. Sending overt or covert signals to parents that their involvement is not only undesirable, but also will result in their child suffering for it, is a damaging course of action. It undermines the role and rights of parents, it encourages distrust and ill will toward teachers, and, most importantly, it interferes with and inhibits what matters most: the education of the young.