March 31, 2023

Parents and Public Schools

Guest Opinion
By Tom Gutowski | Feb. 18, 2023

Conflict between parents and public schools isn’t new. Over the years, parents have objected to things like compulsory education laws, the teaching of evolution, the existence of school-led prayers, the elimination of school-led prayers, the use of corporal punishment, the elimination of corporal punishment, mandatory vaccination, and of course school desegregation, which opponents called communism.

Now, the relationship between parents and public schools is heating up again. The issues this time are mostly derived from the culture wars: mask mandates, vaccinations (again), teaching about racial issues, sex education, and anything related to the LGBTQ+ community. Not surprisingly, most objections are coming from the political right.

The protestors’ mantra is “parents’ rights,” the idea that parents know best what their children should learn, whether they should wear masks, and so forth, and that no school board has a right to overrule them.

The response from the left hasn’t always been articulate. Glenn Youngkin won the 2021 governor’s race in Virginia partly because his Democratic rival, Terry McAuliffe, famously said “I don’t think parents should be telling schools what they should teach.” To some, that sounded like an assertion that parents have no rights at all vis-à-vis the schools, which isn’t true. But the “parents’ rights” position is equally exaggerated; parents’ rights aren’t absolute. For starters, it’s literally impossible to honor every wish of every parent because parents often disagree with each other as well as with school administrators. Compromise is unavoidable in an inclusive system.

From its inception, one of the purposes of the public school movement has been to knit together students from various ethnic groups and social classes into one community. This idea gained additional prominence in the decades before World War I when America took in tens of millions of immigrants, many from Eastern and Southern Europe. And in 1954, after the Brown v. Board of Education decision outlawed the segregation of public schools, the purview of inclusive public education was expanded again to include people of color.

One method for creating a unifying effect in a school system is to mix students together so they get to know and respect one another and form friendships across cultural lines. Attempts to exclude children from the public schools based on their ethnic heritage or the color of their skin would run counter to one of the basic purposes of public education—not to mention be illegal and just plain wrong. The same holds true for the LGBTQ+ community. Gay and trans kids and the children of gay and trans parents have as much right to be in school, and to be made welcome, as anyone else.

Being made welcome means more than just being let in the door. It means not having your race, your history, your sexual orientation, or even your family structure demonized or erased. No parent has the right to force any other parent’s child to live in the shadows or to become a target for bullying.

And while it’s wrong to tell white children that they should feel guilty for the misdeeds of their ancestors, it’s equally wrong to whitewash or ignore the history of Black and indigenous people. Their history—the full story, not just the history of oppression—needs to be taught, and taught honestly, in public schools. And it should be mainstreamed, not relegated to the status of an elective. Teaching all students about each other’s history is another way public schools can foster mutual respect and understanding.

This inclusive focus on the entirety of the school population is also a consideration with regard to health-related issues. Obviously, parents are free to disagree with school policy on masks and vaccines; no one claims school administrators or Board of Health members are infallible, or that they get every decision right. But an objection that doesn’t take into account the effect of a parent’s preference or a student’s actions on the health of the general school population is a non-starter.

Lastly, there’s the matter of making sense, being specific, and being grounded in reality. Those claiming that masks and vaccines don’t work are asking school boards to ignore the scientific evidence to the contrary. Someone who thinks school restrooms have litter boxes for kids who identify as “furries” will not be taken seriously. And the flap over Critical Race Theory doesn’t rate much higher. Those seeking to ban it often erroneously define it as nearly any mention of any aspect of current or past race relations that might be offensive or embarrassing to any white person.

Educating children doesn’t mean filling empty heads with carefully-selected facts and pre-approved opinions. It means providing students with a safe place for learning, giving them an honest, factual introduction to the wider world, and teaching them to think critically. If instead we provide students with a sanitized version of reality along with a hefty dose of intolerance dressed up as moral righteousness, we’ll have short changed an entire generation.

Tom Gutowski earned a PhD in history from the University of Chicago before entering the insurance industry, from which he retired.


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