Commentary

Parents vs. School Officials: Who Decides?

This article appeared in the Washington Times.

As the school year opens, the news is full of reports of conflicts between parents and school officials about how children should be educated.

* In Takoma Park, Maryland, the parents of Eleanor Glewwe and Hana Maruyama wanted to enroll their daughters in the French-immersion program at Maryvale Elementary. But because the girls are both half Asian—and thus deemed officially “Asian” by the Montgomery County school system—they were not allowed to transfer from their assigned school, Takoma Park Elementary. The parents suggested that the school reclassify their daughters as white—shades of South Africa’s Population Registration Act!—but a different policy prevents white students from leaving Takoma Park Elementary as well.

* In Phoenix, Arizona, the parents of Analicia Ortiz and Dustin Green object to their local school’s requirement that junior-high students wear uniforms. So the school district forcibly transferred the students to another school and got a court order banning both the students and their parents from the neighborhood school.

* In Burtonsville, Maryland, Cindy Essick wants her five-year-old quadruplets to enter the same kindergarten classroom, but school officials insist the children should be placed in separate classes. Essick is keeping Danielle, Timothy, Zachary, and Nicholas at home until the school relents.

In those cases and others across the country, school officials and parents disagree about what’s best. Who decides?

Under our monopoly, government-run school system, officials get to decide how your children should be educated. Even when a school system offers alternatives—like Montgomery County’s French-immersion school—it’s up to bureaucrats to decide which children get which alternatives.

Parents may make mistakes. The Essick quadruplets might be better off apart from each other. But the issue is whom we trust to make such decisions, parents or school bureaucrats.

The range of possibilities in designing a school is endless—nine months or year-round, graded or ungraded, homework or not. Then there are curriculum issues: phonics, new math, outcome-based education, bilingual or English only. And values issues: school prayer, the pledge of allegiance, traditional values or tolerance and diversity, drug testing, uniforms.

For many of those issues, there is no one right answer; different people have different needs, different situations, and different values. In a market system, different preferences get tested, and customers can choose from a wide variety of options. We don’t all have to choose Chevrolets or Apple computers or Woody Allen’s movies or John Grisham’s books.

But in a political system, one side “wins,” and the losers are stuck with products or services they don’t like. Different preferences become the subject of political, legislative, and judicial battles.

The way out of this problem is to give parents more control over their children’s education. School choice is usually promoted as a way to improve education—which it is—but just as important, it would allow parents to choose schools that fit their values and preferences.

Parents who like uniforms or who want their quadruplets in the same classroom should be able to choose schools that offer what they want instead of being at the mercy of a school bureaucracy.

How could we give parents such choices? The simplest way would be to treat education the way we treat other essential services such as food, clothing, and shelter: get the government out of the way and let families purchase the services they want. We could have a free market in education—no government schools, no general subsidies—and offer “school stamps,” like food stamps, if our concern is that the poor won’t be able to afford schools.

If it’s politically impossible to get government that far out of the picture, we should at least let families use the money that the taxpayers are spending on their children’s education on the schools that are best for their children.

Right now, school systems tell families, “You live on this block; your children go to this school.” Or even worse, they say, “You live on this block and your race is this, so your children must go to this school.”

But we could change that monopoly, top-down system. We could tell parents, “The school system plans to spend $6000 (the national average) to educate each of your children next year. You choose the school, public or private, that best meets your children’s needs, and we’ll send that school the $6000.”

If we wanted to save taxpayers some money, we might note that most private schools in America cost less than $3000 per year, and grant parents only $3000 for a private school. (Link to related Cato study)

Then little Eleanor and Hana could go to the French-language school their parents like, Dustin and Analicia’s parents could look for a school that didn’t require uniforms, and Cindy Essick could raise her four children the way she thinks best.

Power to the parents, not the bureaucrats.

David Boaz is the executive vice president of the Cato Institute and editor of Liberating Schools: Education in the Inner City.