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Despite what you hear, parents aren’t in charge of schools. That’s a good thing.

Despite what you hear, parents aren’t in charge of schools. That’s a good thing.


No group of parents has the right to demand any public school restrict all its students from participating in any class or activity, or reading any book, that a minority of parents find objectionable.

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I’m not running for public office, so I’m going to tell you something practically no one seeking election in 2022 is willing to say out loud:

Parents aren’t in charge of our public schools ― and they shouldn’t be.

That’s not a problem; it’s a best practice, and one that has prevailed in this country for a hundred years. It also happens to be the law.

Maybe you don’t like that law. Maybe you believe that parents alone should dictate what goes on in the classrooms their children attend. If so, you’re in luck: Dozens of private and parochial schools are in frenzied competition for your tuition check. Almost certainly you can find one whose curriculum, library catalogue and hiring practices are compatible with your own political views, religious values and cultural preferences.

But my concern here is public schools, which Merriam-Webster defines as “free tax-supported schools controlled by a local governmental authority” (emphasis mine).

See? Not a word there about moms, dads or legal guardians. Because public means everyone — or at least, every citizen eligible to vote in the election for whatever local government authority calls the shots in the school district they reside in.

That includes plenty of moms and dads with school-aged children, but also those whose children are grown, or dead, or living in foreign countries. Not to mention the legions of voters whose households, whether by choice or circumstance, include no children at all.

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Educating children takes a village

Of course, parents of school-aged children tend to pay much closer attention to what happens in the public school classrooms their kids attend — and the vast majority of teachers have neither the desire nor the stamina to do their difficult jobs without the support of their students’ families.

The better the teacher, the more interested he or she is likely to be in cultivating close, mutually supportive relationships with every student’s parents. Good public schools recognize the unique importance of that partnership by sponsoring curriculum nights, setting aside time for parent-teacher conferences, and supporting parent-teacher associations that function as farm teams for the local school board.

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But those with no children of their own are stakeholders, too — and they have every right to expect that the schools they subsidize with their tax dollars will prepare students to live and work in a democratic society that includes people with political and religious views different than their parents’.

It would be unreasonable for non-parents to demand that public school students be indoctrinated into a particular faith or worldview, or pressured to embrace political ideologies or religious principles their parents find repellant. But it’s just as unreasonable for parents to insist that public school classrooms replicate their children’s home environment, or to demand that public school teachers protect children from exposure to any idea or perspective they’re unlikely to encounter in their parents’ kitchen.

School boards must stop politicizing religion: When curriculum standards and religion collide, students and faith traditions lose

Parents who want the shield their child from exposure to specific courses, books or points of view have lots of options short of private school. In most instances, public school officials will make reasonable efforts to excuse students from participation in courses or communal activities their parents object to, and some will restrict an individual student’s access to materials their parents find objectionable. Just don’t expect to convince a school librarian that Mark Twain’s “Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” is an insidious attempt to promote Critical Race Theory.

There are other options for parents 

Those who object to what’s being taught in their children’s classroom can join with like-minded voters to elect simpatico school board members who share their concern (although the federal Bill of Rights and Michigan law both impose limits on how much school board members can run roughshod over the rights of other public school stakeholders).

And parents worried that any exposure to any perspective incompatible with their own views may prove noxious can opt-out entirely by joining the ranks of home-schoolers, a growing constituency the U.S. Census Bureau says now accounts for one in 10 households with school-aged children.

What no group of parents has the right to demand is that any public school restrict all its students from participating in any class or activity, or reading any book, that a minority of parents find objectionable. When parents shut down a school board meeting or demand that school officials make homophobic bigotry school policy, as a mob in Dearborn did last week, they’re only demonstrating how great a challenge public schools face in upholding the civility and decency on which democracy’s survival depends.

Former Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe’s fatal candor

Once upon a time, the idea that no group of parents representing less than an electoral majority should enjoy exclusive dominion over public schools was uncontroversial. It used to be something everyone learned in high school social studies.

But it’s a truth politicians in both parties have grown wary of acknowledging since September 2021, when then-Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe’s candor in a televised debate with his Republican gubernatorial opponent cost him a second term.

Asked whether local school boards should be free to ignore statewide regulations, McAuliffe defended the Virginia Board of Education’s efforts to protect transgender students, then added, somewhat gratuitously: “I don’t think parents should be telling schools what they should teach.” McAuliffe wasn’t making an argument for keeping parents out of the loop; he was rebutting a false accusation that he had conspired to keep parents from knowing whether their school libraries were purchasing books that included sexual content.

US Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona: COVID hurt student academic achievements, but we can recover

But Republicans made McAuliffe’s four-second sound byte the centerpiece of an ad campaign asserting that McAuliffe sought to exclude parents from any participation in school governance, and GOP nominee Glenn Youngkin went on to upset the incumbent that November.

Republicans in other states, including Michigan gubernatorial nominee Tudor Dixon, have been trying to replicate Youngkin’s campaign ever since, asserting that schools that should be teaching reading and math are furtively recruiting third-graders for gender reassignment surgery. (Never mind that only parents who rarely visit their childrens’ classrooms are susceptible to such foolishness; that’s exactly the frightened audience these demagogues are targeting.)

Republicans want to win school boards. They’re winning in white counties by running on race.

But don’t rely on me or Dixon to tell you what’s happening in your child’s classroom; ask your child, or your child’s teacher. Attend curriculum night, and ask questions. And don’t be surprised if the teachers and administrators you buttonhole are not just willing to answer, but grateful for the opportunity.

But don’t delude yourself into thinking that the rest of us — including parents who think differently than you do, and those who aren’t parents at all — have no skin in the game.

Brian Dickerson is the Editorial Page editor for the Detroit Free Press, where this column originally appeared. Contact him at bdickerson@freepress.com.

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