Acton Commentary

Parents Should Decide


Some “isms” are contemptible (e.g., totalitarianism). Others stir our hearts (e.g. patriotism).

A lesser known, but crucial “ism” is “liberal parentalism.” It's a phrase coined by Professor Stephen Gilles of Quinnipiac University School of Law in Hamden, Connecticut. The phrase embraces the tradition of parents' freedom to choose how their children will be educated.

When parents are not permitted (or are too apathetic) to make decisions regarding the training of their children, government takes the reins. The result can be inimical to the desires of most parents, such as the current situation in which God is utterly banned from public schools.

The concept of liberal parentalism holds that parents are best able to make decisions concerning how their kids will be raised--particularly how they will be educated. No government entity, no matter how intellectually endowed, has the motivation or concern in choosing a school for a child as has the child's own parents. That's the essence of liberal parentalism.

Professor Gilles' concept was ratified by the U.S. Supreme Court's dramatic decision in Zelman v. Simmons-Harris in 2002, which decisively approved school choice in the broadest of terms. The Court said, in effect, that competitive efficiency and educational freedom are as inseparable as--to use a household comparison--flour in a cake.

No matter what you call it--“liberal parentalism” or educational freedom--the critical role of parents in education is rooted deeply in our history and religious tradition. “Listen, my son, to your father's instruction and do not forsake your mother's teaching,” reads Proverbs 1:8 (NIV). And a later proverb advises, “Discipline your son, and he will give you peace; he will bring delight to your soul.” (Proverbs 29:17 NIV)

Those opposed to educational freedom long to show that parental control is a new and maybe even un-American notion. Some think that freedom of choice has suddenly popped up in recent times. But during a long stretch of our nation's history, educational institutions were voluntary, cooperative endeavors, which involved parents, teachers, religious institutions, charitable organizations, and, sometimes, local government.

The American public school grew in the wake of the wave of immigration that swept across the nation in the nineteenth century. It was then thought by politicians that government control of education was the tool to assimilate the immigrants' children, as well as to dodge conflicts over any state subsidization of religious schools.

So, the critics and the unknowing don't admit or don't realize, that the United States has a long and rightful history of valuing and guarding the freedom of educational choice. The country's 8,000 Catholic schools, for example, are a testament to that freedom, though parents who have chosen private schools have also been compelled to support the government school system through their taxes.

Although school choice now is legal, it still serves a relatively small number of students. Many states have charter schools and more than a million children are home-schooled. But those who can't stand the thought of such educational freedom are trying to stifle the trend toward parental choice. They seek, for instance, to trap existing charter school academies in a tangle of new regulations. Such rules would mandate everything from faculty to curriculum.

California has made it almost impossible for parents to home-school their children. That state, known for its bizarre customs, requires that students learn only from a credentialed tutor, a state-approved charter school, or a home-school study program supervised by the public school district.

Tragically, there will always be some parents who care little what happens to their children. They see school as a place to get their kids out of the way so they can indulge in illegitimate pursuits. The kids come to school with similar distorted attitudes.

But what most parents through the years have wanted for their children were educational options that matched sound cultural and moral or religious beliefs and traditions. They want constitutional protections, such as freedom of expression, association, and religion. Few Americans want the government involved in the intimate details of family life or educational regulations aimed at homogenizing the student body.

Parents have a moral duty to use freedom responsibly by making good decisions for their children. For its part, government has a duty to provide the space necessary for exercising that freedom. Allowing a diverse variety of educational institutions to flourish accommodates the deepest beliefs and desires of a diverse population. It is the “liberal” thing to do.