Commentary

Save Parents the Lecture

Are there things that parents could do to improve education? Sure, but they don’t need presidential frontrunner and presumptive winner Barack Obama lecturing them on getting involved in their kids’ learning. What they need is real power over their kids’ education. What they need is school choice—but that’s something for which Obama refuses to use his bully pulpit.

“Government can’t do it all,” Senator Obama has been reprimanding viewers in a 30-second education spot, a slightly surprising message given the audacious scope of what he says government can do. “As parents we need to turn off the TV, read to our kids, give them the thirst to learn.”

While many parents could indeed stand to cut American Idol a bit short and break out the Hardy Boys or Nancy Drew, Obama is blaming the victims for the failures of government schooling.

Consider the gall: Public-schooling defenders insist that parents pay for public schools, largely on the grounds that parents can’t handle education themselves. Then they spin right around to blame parents when the schooling is a dud!

Pointing this out is not to discount the research showing that the more parents are involved in their children’s education, the better kids do. The problem is, most ideas for parental involvement do not include helping make decisions over what children will learn or who will teach them.

Bring the homeroom cupcakes? Sure! Run the bake sale? Be our guest! Demand a different curriculum? Um, not so fast. We have a school to run.

It isn’t hard to figure out why parents don’t get fired up about participating in their children’s education when the roles accorded them are so trivial. But teachers and administrators don’t want parents having any real say because, well, who wants the customers turning down the product when you can make them take it?

This explains why teachers unions, school administrator associations, and other defenders of the status quo hate school choice, especially programs that would let all parents choose any public or private school. Unfortunately, Obama stands with them. Yes, he voices support for charter schools, public schools that can operate more or less independently. But those schools exist largely at the will of the very districts with which they compete, and Obama is quick to add that “chronically underperforming” charters should be shuttered…without saying what, exactly, that means. It’s like putting the fox in charge of the Department of Henhouse Security.

All of this is too bad, because in addition to showing that parental involvement is highly correlated with academic success, research shows that school choice—especially private school choice—increases parental involvement. Parents are more involved in schools they choose, and schools that must be chosen are quicker to involve parents.

Ah, but with choice, won’t parents inevitably push schools to lower standards, inflate grades, and just generally kowtow to them?

Hardly. As we’ve learned from Washington, D.C.’s voucher program, once parents get choice, they start seeking out those things that experts say they aren’t savvy enough to demand, like a rigorous curriculum. In other words, they look for quality, forcing schools to aim their sights up, not down.

Importantly, there’s a critical proviso about the presidency when it comes to choice. Outside of Washington, the federal government has no constitutional authority to legislate in education. (Inside, conversely, a President Obama should do all he can to save the District’s 1,900-student school choice program…but don’t get your hopes up.) That means Obama shouldn’t try to pass a Voucher for America, or something like that; the founders knew the feds couldn’t possibly handle something as inherently local and, frankly, personal, as education. What he could do is use the bully pulpit to shame and browbeat state and local governments for providing an awful education product, and implore them to let parents choose the schools they want.

But therein lies the irony of Obama’s education campaign, and what he’s likely to do if he wins the presidency. While he gladly uses the bully pulpit to blame parents for our woes, he refuses to employ it to get them the power that they need.

Neal McCluskey is associate director of the Cato Institute’s Center for Educational Freedom and author of Feds in the Classroom: How Big Government Corrupts, Cripples, and Compromises American Education.