Commentary

In Parents We Trust?

By Casey J. Lartigue Jr.
June 18, 2002

In addition to all of the scholarly reasons educators and others give for why they fear parents having power over how their children are educated, here’s one not discussed: everyone has relatives.

People can all think of a relative or friend who either is a bad parent or makes bad decisions in other aspects of their lives. And we can be sure that the relative or friend will become no more intelligent once he or she has a school voucher.

But the fact that some parents make bad decisions doesn’t defeat the argument for school choice. Instead of being forced to send their children off to the local public schools, parents would be better off with several options. Many of us may lament as we stand in a grocery store that there are 52 brands of dishwashing powder or liquid, but few of us would like it if the only “choice” were the government brand. Restricting choice because there might be mistakes brings to mind what philosopher Herbert Spencer said in 1891: “To protect people from the effects of folly is to fill the world with fools.”

The question of parents being able to make good choices for their children will become very real if the Supreme Court approves the Cleveland voucher program. In a provocative 1999 essay, education guru Chester Finn directly addressed the question: “Can We Trust Parents?” His decision, after 2,500 thoughtful words, appeared to be “no.”

Finn argued in his 1999 essay that we must recognize that some parents increasingly are part of the problem in education and presumably would remain so if they had a form of school choice. “Although many parents continue to work with great determination to ensure that their children develop into adults of sound character, an appallingly large number are falling down on the job,” Finn wrote.

He noted that some parents have joined educators in pushing for grade inflation and against making academic distinctions (banishing competition, rankings, standardized test scores). In addition, Finn says, an increasing number of parents are less likely these days to insist on basic decorum and conduct by their children or to expect their children to turn in homework, show up on time, or to do well in school.

Finn’s argument shouldn’t be confused with the one made by defenders of public education who argue that we shouldn’t have school choice because low-income and minority parents either don’t care or don’t know to judge if a school is educating their child. The self-interested unions and public school diehard defenders can be dismissed. But it isn’t as easy to dismiss Finn, a long-time school choice supporter. And there’s another reason Finn shouldn’t be dismissed by school choice supporters when he questions if parents can be trusted to choose well: He’s right.

Not everyone is a good chooser. But that misses the point: Is it better to have people making decisions for themselves or to have those decisions dictated to them by A third-party? After all, if parents don’t make the choice, who should? Ted Kennedy or Trent Lott? To paraphrase Winston Churchill, parents making decisions about how their children are educated may be the worst system in the world — except for all of the alternatives.

Supporting educational freedom means accepting that people will make mistakes. We don’t have government-run grocery stores because people feed junk food to their children. Nor do we have a government-run computer store because parents let their children play video games.

Although parents are sure to make mistakes, they should have power over how their children are educated. When a politician or educator makes a bad choice for you, he or she will do everything possible to cover up the mistake. On the other hand, many parents will try to reverse their bad decisions.

A great example of the value of school choice is Deidra Pearson, a Cleveland parent who is one of the plaintiffs highlighted by the American Federation of Teachers in its lawsuit against the Cleveland voucher plan. Pearson had used a voucher to enroll her son in a private school. Pearson pulled her son out after his grades declined and returned him to public school, where he earns mostly A’s and B’s.

Although voucher opponents cited Pearson’s case as an example of the failure of vouchers, the opposite is true: Parents are better off with more choices. Would Ms. Pearson have been better off without any options? She was able to compare schools and find the one right for her child. Parents with vouchers or a tuition tax credit could then try out different schools — as Pearson did — to decide which school is best for their child.

Casey Lartigue is an education policy analyst at the Cato Institute.