Is education a public good or a private benefit?
A parent attends a rally sponsored by Catholic Vote and Fight for Schools, in Leesburg, Virginia on October 2, 2021.
Photo: Cliff Owen / AP / Shutterstock
There is no doubt that Glenn Youngkin’s victory over Terry McAuliffe in the Virginia gubernatorial race will generate copy campaign tactics among Republicans across the country as we approach the mid-term of 2022. And among those tactics will most certainly be the ‘parental rights’ message that has been deployed to take advantage of all kinds of current grievances against public schools, ranging from pandemic policies to the usual complaints about the ‘awake’ program to the very existence of the “Government schools.”
But the “parents count” crusade in Virginia raises deeper questions about the very purpose of public education. Yes, of course, many parents were rightly upset that they were asked to help schools educate their children when the pandemic ended in-person education. The perception that teachers, administrators, school board members and other elements of the “educational bureaucracy” want parents to support their decisions without having much opportunity to shape them is too widespread to be entirely invented or dictated by ideology. And there are also pre-existing tensions involving anti-union sentiment at play.
On the other hand, if the involvement of parents in school decision-making turns into parental control, as many conservatives implicitly or explicitly advocate, the fundamental question that must be asked is whether education is a public good in which citizens as a whole are the essential stakeholder, or a private benefit provided by State for children and their parents – like, say, SNAP programs or school meals. If this is the first case, whatever contribution is offered to parents, elected or appointed public authorities should ultimately take the lead. If the latter is the case, then it makes sense to replace traditional measures of public accountability like mandatory academic standards and anti-discrimination policies with maximum deference to the wishes of parents. This position of course brings you down the road of ‘backpack vouchers’ (attached to the student wherever they go), in which the lion’s share of education funding bypasses school authorities and goes straight to the point. to the child for its use in any educational setting chosen by the parents.
In a public school system designed to provide educated future citizenship, teachers and administrators are public servants whose roles and responsibilities in the system transcend arrival, clocking in, performing specified tasks, and clocking in. In a public school system designed as a taxpayer-funded service for children and parents, administrators and teachers are just employees, with all the privileges and pay they can compete with “the boss.” , the parents of the children in the class. The parent who chooses to home school their children, or to send them to private schools with a mainly religious mission, owes nothing to the public schools they abandon.
Meanwhile, non-parents (or those with adult children) may begin to view education funding as strictly an income transfer program that they can support in principle, but not with any personal buy-in. . This does not necessarily mean a constant downward trajectory in education funding; after all, higher education is basically designed as a program to transfer income from taxpayers to parents and students that much of the population does not directly benefit (although we would expect students and parents to pay increasingly higher tuition and fees, which would be horrible if it applied to K-12 schools). But the idea of public schools at the heart of the American experience and reflecting egalitarian and even community values, would not survive long. Parents who wish to control all aspects of their children’s educational journey and the politicians who care for them need to be aware of the long term cost.