All taxpayers support public education through income, property and sales taxes. Every person, even those without school age children of their own, has an interest in providing a certain level of education throughout society. This common frame of reference and set of skills is important for our shared social, economic, and political systems.
Representative government and commerce both require informed participants. Public support for education makes this possible and public spending on education is justified by the common benefits everyone in society enjoys.
But parents of school-aged children have a special, more vested interest in the education of their own children. In fact, they have special rights.
The government recognizes and endorses this unique relationship by providing parents with extensive and exclusive rights to make decisions about the child’s life. When parents are required to send their children to public schools (and when they lack the ability to send them elsewhere or home school them) their rights can be eroded.
This erosion is most visible when children receive compulsory instruction on controversial issues; including reproductive health, the origins of life, social and gender roles, and contemporary politics. Often the content or method flies directly in the face of parental beliefs.
By their nature, all of these fields involve a great amount of perspective and disagreement, and even generalized instruction conveys deeply seated values. Parents often find this instruction objectionable. Those with sufficient income can withdraw their children, choosing to homeschool them or send them to private schools.
Other parents have no objections about curriculum in public schools, but worry about the effectiveness of public school classroom instruction. These parents rightly want their children to be competitively placed for entrance into higher education and see the one-size-fits-all public school system as unable to fully meet their child’s specific learning needs.
Those parents without the resources to withdraw their children are having their rights violated. They are required by law to educated their children but they are not given the means to do it in a way consistent with their fundamental rights as parents.
Teacher, principals and lawmakers often say that “engaged parents” are the key to a successful school, but in practice these responsibly engaged parents are being financially punished for making child-based choices about education. Even parents who can transfer the child out are forced to finance (through local, state and federal taxes) a public education they may find offensive or ineffective and reasonably chose not to utilize.
If lawmakers are serious about the common good of a public education, they will begin to think more broadly about what “public education” really means. Public education is more than just “public schools;” it is an educated public -and that means all types of schools. This is the way South Carolina approaches college education, utilizing the highly popular HOPE, LIFE and Palmetto Fellows Scholarships, and it ought to be how we think of K-12 schooling too.