Winds of change in public schools


The whole process began innocently enough. Parents, concerned about the education of their children, employed a teacher who could educate their children full- time. Then they hired another, and another. Soon, what began as an effort to provide a basic education for American children had grown to monolithic proportions, seized power and taken on an identity of its own – the public school system.

Today, this American-as-apple-pie institution daily instructs over 46 million children across the nation. Yet, in spite of apparent solidity, the public schools may actually be scrambling for a foothold as over 10 percent of American students choose other options.


This fall, 200,000 students enrolled in specialized charter schools. Another 2.65 million attend Catholic schools, while 797,000 entered other Christian schools. Over 1 million more are educated at home. Some public schools find the competition so fierce that they have begun running ads to solicit students and parents back into the system. Others offer all-day kindergarten classes, ballet lessons or other incentives.

Some parents and educators welcomed the changes. Others feared the destruction of an American system. In the ensuing debates over voucher systems, tax cuts for homeschoolers, loss of funding to public school systems, etc., it seems that two basic points are often missed. The heart of the matter is not who will get the money. The real issues are parental rights and children’s needs.

I believe that parents should be the primary educators of their children, not the state. As one court noted in the 1952 DeBurgh vs. DeBurgh case: “The family is the basic unit of our society, the center of the personal affections that ennoble and enrich human life. . . it ensures the care and education of children in a stable environment .. . . it nurtures and develops the individual initiative that distinguishes a free people.”

The idea that only “professional” educators are qualified to teach children is a myth perpetuated by the educational establishment. The concept that teachers must be certified by the state in order to be qualified to teach is a second myth. The men and women who built America, for example, were essentially home taught by either their “uncertified, nonprofessional” parents or tutors who assisted their parents.

If parents are unable to instruct their children, they do have the right to assign others certain responsibilities. However, these “surrogate” instructors, whether a private tutor or public school teacher, are to be responsible to the parents. Parents should be directly involved in every aspect of the school, not just attendees at parent- teacher meetings.

Secondly, children are unique individuals. They learn in different ways and have different talents and aptitudes. While all need certain basic skills, they cannot all be adequately served through a one-size-fits-all system, even if the system is an American tradition. Some children may bloom in a specialized charter school, while others find equal support in private, religious schools. Homeschooling is an extremely flexible option, allowing a parent to hand-tailor the child’s learning experience. Regardless of the choice, educators need to realize that the focus is the child, not preserving a system.

A few states have taken positive steps to support the family unit and to provide flexibility for the individuality of students. Alabama, for example, now recognizes the rights of students to transfer within school systems, including homeschools and church schools. A school district in California recently instituted a “flexible scheduling” program that allows parents to opt their children out of certain classes, replacing them with homeschool instruction or attendance at a local university. Educators should laud efforts such as these that allow for parental involvement and student diversity. After all, the primary issue is not money, it’s our children.

John W. Whitehead is president of The Rutherford Institute in Charlottesville, VA. Copyright c 1997 The Rutherford Institute.

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