| April 12, 2012

Do Parents Know Best?

In Democracy in America, Tocqueville warned that if despotism were to come to America, it wouldn’t be your garden-variety despotism. “It would be more extensive and milder, and it would degrade men without tormenting them.”

He speaks of a “regulated, mild, and peaceful servitude” which “does not tyrannize, it hinders, compromises, enervates, extinguishes, dazes, and finally reduces each nation to being nothing more than a herd of timid and industrious animals of which the government is the shepherd.”
Nearly two centuries later, the government’s education sector has its fair share of benevolent shepherds, and some of them have been making headlines lately.

Debbie Squires, associate director of the Michigan Elementary and Middle School Principals Association, recently told a legislative committee that educators “are the people who know best about how to serve children. That’s not necessarily true of an individual resident. I’m not saying they don’t want the best for their children, but they may not know what actually is best from an education standpoint.”

Michael Walker Jones, head of Louisiana’s largest teachers union, agrees. He recently told the New Orleans Times-Picayune, “If I’m a parent in poverty, I have no clue because I’m trying to struggle and live day to day.”

Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal promptly took issue with this “top-down, arrogant, elitist mentality,” saying “I believe that parents—regardless of their income or circumstances—know what’s best for their children. It’s ridiculous and insulting to say that parents can’t make decisions in the best interest of their children.”

Indeed, not only can parents make good decisions, but in many cases parents can actually educate children better than the educators themselves. As Nobel Prize-winning economist Milton Friedman observed, the explosive growth of homeschooling is “evidence of the failure of our current education system. There is no other complex field in our society in which do-it-yourself beats out factory production or market production. Nobody makes his or her own car. But it still is the case that parents can perform the job of educating their children, in many cases better than our present education system.”

Even if parents don’t choose to do the teaching themselves, they are quite capable of choosing good schools for their children. But many education “professionals” tend to look down their noses at parents, who, after all, are mere “amateurs.” These professionals have forgotten that the word “amateur” traces to the Latin amare (“to love”), and that amateurs are people whose actions are motivated by love rather than something else. People motivated by love make it their business to “know what’s best” for the objects of their affection.

Still, the condescension persists, and not just in Michigan or Louisiana. In 2010 I watched from the gallery of the Oklahoma House of Representatives as the lawmaker from District 3—a former school principal and superintendent from Arkoma, Oklahoma—took to the House floor to argue against a bill which would give more school choices to parents of special-needs students.

In some cases, the solon from LeFlore County magnanimously allowed, mothers and fathers “know what’s best for their child.” Yes indeed, in some cases mothers and fathers are actually “very good in making decisions about their child.” But in other cases, he warned darkly, “I’ve seen students with disabilities where the parents had disabilities also. Are they really the ones that ought to be making the decision about where that child goes?”

Now one can only speculate as to what’s going on in Arkoma, what reproductive practices and resultant disorders are fueling this multi-generational cycle of unreliable decision-making. I find it difficult to believe it’s a widespread problem. And I find it difficult to believe I’m the only Oklahoman who resents the paternalistic impulses of a politician (Tocqueville warned of “an immense tutelary power” which would take charge of watching over us), especially a politician who once superintended a school district where the math achievement of the average student (according to is at the 12th percentile relative to an international comparison group.

Many education professionals don’t want parents to have the opportunity to choose what’s best for their children. Because given a choice, these amateurs may well head for the exits of their local public school. And “I don’t think we need to open the door, to just throw it wide open,” this lawmaker said. After all, parents “may think they know what’s best—but do they?”

If nothing else, one has to admire the candor.

Still, we’re left with one very important question. If the parents of House District 3 aren’t capable of choosing a good school for their children, how can they be trusted to choose a competent official to represent them in the Oklahoma House of Representatives?

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