“We should give parents more choice as to where and how their children are educated.” “Whose Children Are They?” These and similar statements have heralded the emergence of a powerful Parents’ Rights movement in Connecticut and throughout the nation.
With a facially appealing slogan, the Parents’ Rights movement is a well-funded network of national organizations with the ultimate goal of permitting any parent to get a government check to send their child to the school of their choice. What this means, simply, is that parents with money will send their children to private schools.
Since the amount of the voucher is certain not to be sufficient to cover the entire cost of tuition, other parents will be forced to send their children either to low-budget private schools or to hollowed-out public schools. Students with disabilities will remain in the public schools to get needed services.
The movement has cut its teeth on spreading falsehoods: critical race theory is somehow a part of social emotional learning; school-based health centers are encouraging young children to experiment with sex or to question their gender; public schools are teaching children X-rated sexual activities. These canards have been effective in placing school administrators on the defensive and, over the longer term, tend to degrade the quality of public education.
Connecticut has a long and strong history of support of public education. The Connecticut Code of 1650 enumerated two principles that remain the basis for Connecticut’s educational system today. First, the state has the duty to compel parents to educate their children. Second, public money, raised by taxes, should be used to pay for education. The education reform movement of the mid-1800’s was led by individuals from New England, including Horace Mann, Catharine Beecher and Henry Barnard. They argued for Common Schools to equip every child with moral instruction and equalize the conditions of citizens. Indeed, the oldest education publication in America is the Connecticut Common School Journal which was first published in August 1838.
One of the primary purposes of Common Schools in 1838 and of public education in 2022 is to promote the development and vitality of a civil society. Public education is one of the very few experiences that nearly all in society go through. While attending public schools, students learn to deal with others in their community as individuals. They learn how to accept and respect differences of opinion, of color, of ethnicity, of beliefs and of sexuality. While Connecticut has largely been balkanized into rich and poor, Black and white, Hispanic and Anglo towns, the concepts of shared experience and embracing diversity remain the bedrock of public education.
The Parents’ Rights movement seeks to destroy this model. Using the age-old tropes of sex and race, it seeks to segregate students. It seeks to make parents comfortable that their children are not being exposed to “dangerous” elements. It seeks to perpetuate the sharp divisions that now exist in society.
The Parents’ Rights movement also works to undermine the professionalism of our educators. The movement asserts that parents are as well equipped to determine curriculum as are professional educators. The movement is infuriated by curriculum that points out the crucial and devastating role that slavery played in American history. The movement is intolerant of sex education.
The movement has adopted the slogan “Whose Children Are They?” This is an intriguing question. While I have custody and responsibility for my child, society places certain limits on what I can do with my child. On the one hand, I cannot sell my child into slavery. On the other, Connecticut General Statutes Section 10-184 says, “All parents and those who have the care of children shall bring them up in some lawful and honest employment and instruct them or cause them to be instructed in reading, writing, spelling, English grammar, geography, arithmetic and United States history and in citizenship, including a study of the town, state and federal governments.”
Indeed, the statutes and the 370-year-old history of Connecticut are clear that they are all our children; that we, as a society, have a strong interest in having each child develop into a caring, concerned, and educated citizen. Parents are a critical part of this endeavor, but they do not and cannot have exclusive control over what and how their child learns.
Parents have rights, but society has the obligation to ensure a civilized future. Society meets that obligation by providing compulsory public education.
Andrew Feinstein is an attorney with the Feinstein Education Law Group in Mystic.