By David W. Kirkpatrick
posted July 21, 2008
The Buckeye Institute for Public Policy Solutions
Most parents undoubtedly believe that their children are their responsibility. But a contrary view has a long history.
The point was made by Philadelphian Benjamin Rush, a signer of the Declaration of Independence in 1776. Ten years later, in proposing a plan for education in Pennsylvania he wrote, “Let our pupil be taught that he does not belong to himself, but that he is public property.”
His plan died but not the sentiment. It was in Pennsylvania nearly a half century later, in 1834, that the first plan for a common school system was adopted. Its prime sponsor and defender, Thaddeus Stevens, said that the sons of both the rich and the poor are all “deemed children of the same parent – the Commonwealth.”
That Stevens’ view was not shared by the general public was demonstrated when most of the Representatives who voted for that measure were defeated at the next election. Stevens himself was reelected and in one of the most influential speeches in American legislative history, he persuaded a majority in the new session to not repeal the new law, as they had been elected to do.
Fortunately the view that children belong to the state is not shared by the U.S. Supreme Court. In its unanimous Pierce decision in 1925, which still stands, the Court upheld parental rights to control their children’s education, declaring that “The child is not the mere creature of the state,” and “those who nurture him and direct his destiny have the right, coupled with the high duty, to recognize and prepare him for additional obligations.”
This law of the land, however clearly stated, is neither universally accepted nor honored in practice.
Several years ago, in a debate on a Chicago radio station, when I said the schools exist for the benefit of the students, Bella Rosenberg, assistant to then-American Federation of Teachers president Al Shanker, strongly disagreed, saying, “First and foremost, we’re running a public system at taxpayer’s expense for the public good and only secondarily for the good of parents and individuals.”
She didn’t explain how the system can serve the public good if students aren’t successful. Certainly the public good is not served when millions of students drop out every year before graduating from high school, and huge numbers who do graduate possess minimal skills.
In 1976 Arkansas’ governor was promoting education reforms in his state, including mandatory kindergarten. When asked if the state knows better than parents what is good for children, the governor’s response was yes it did. Then he attempted to take himself off the hook by adding, “Look, I can’t change this, it’s Hillary’s bill.” That was later president Bill Clinton.
While few state it quite that bluntly the tendency since Pennsylvania’s 1834 Common School Act has been for the state to continually expand its field of control of children which necessarily restricts control by parents. We’ve gone from Jefferson’s plan for three-years of basic schooling to one embracing young people for thirteen years. Now the drive is to push schooling further down the age ladder and to more schooling at the upper ages.
None of this is to deny the importance of education, especially in a child’s early formative years. But education and schooling are not synonymous terms and there is some indication that too much schooling, even when “successful,” may be harmful. To the degree this is true, the more schooling, the more harm.
The more time students spend in school the more they are with their peers. Urie Bronfenbrenner has cited research suggesting this is harmful. The more time children spend with their peers the more likely they are to adopt the standards of their age group, and have a negative view of themselves, their friends and their future. Compared with those who identify with their parents, peer-oriented children tend to be less responsible and to get in trouble more often.
School staff say problem kids tend to be so because of the family they are in. There is surely some truth here. But it may also be, however unintended or indirect, at least partially because of the schools they are in.
Are they problem kids, or kids with problems?
David W. Kirkpatrick is a Senior Education Fellow with the U.S. Freedom Foundation and The Buckeye Institute.