Who Owns the Children?

Do parents own their children?  Does the government?

A recent MSNBC promo has put this perennial conservative issue back in the headlines.  Glenn Beck, Sarah Palin, Rush Limbaugh, and others have denounced the sentiments of the ad.

Yesterday conservative pundit Glenn Beck accused liberal-leaning MSNBC of finally exposing their “radical goals” to steal children from parents.  The plan all along, Beck argues, has been for “progressives” to seize government control of the most intimate family decisions.

The specific MSNBC promo to which Beck objected contained this ideological smoking gun:

We have never invested as much in public education as we should have because we’ve always had kind of a private notion of children. Your kid is yours and totally your responsibility. We haven’t had a very collective notion of these are our children. So part of it is we have to break through our kind of private idea that kids belong to their parents or kids belong to their families and recognize that kids belong to whole communities.

This thirty-second promo by Melissa Harris-Perry contains the proof that liberals want to take children away from their parents and raise them in dysfunctional public schools.  His fears, Beck insisted, had been proven right by this “terrifying” video.  Though he recognized he might be called a “conspiracy theorist,” Beck insisted that this short video contained all the proof he needed of a vast left-wing plot to steal children into indoctrination centers.

Sarah Palin chimed in too, tweeting that MSNBC’s notion that children don’t belong to parents was “Unflippingbelievable.”

Rush Limbaugh predicted that soon children could be forced to mow everyone’s lawns, not just their own.  This notion, Limbaugh concluded, was as “old as communist genocide.”

The idea that “progressives” have set their sights on sneakily seizing control of America’s children has long ideological roots.

Back in the 1970s, for example, the influential conservative activists Mel and Norma Gabler asked fundamental questions about the nature of the textbooks under consideration in their home state of Texas:

To WHOM does the child belong?  IF students now belong to the State, these books are appropriate.  IF students still belong to parents, these books have absolutely no place in Texas schools.  The author clearly states that these books are designed to change the behavior, values, and concepts of the child, based on the premise that the teacher is NOT to instruct, but to moderate, and to ‘heal.’ [Gablers, What Are They Teaching Our Children, pg. 119]

Similarly, Connie Marshner, affiliated at the time with the Heritage Foundation, argued in 1978, “A parent’s right to decide the direction of his child’s life is a sovereign right, as long as the child is subject to his parent.  Educators have no business creating dissatisfaction with and rebellion against parental wishes” (Connie Marshner, Blackboard Tyranny, pg. 38).

But such notions go back much further in the conservative consciousness.  One leading conservative activist in 1951 Pasadena warned a state senate investigating committee that the root cause of public school problems was “a definite elimination of parental authority, undermining of parental influence.”

And back in the 1920s, the US Supreme Court ruled that parents had a right to educate their children in private schools if they chose.  The reason, the court ruled in Pierce vs. Society of Sisters (1925), is that “The child is not the mere creature of the state.”

Beck’s, Palin’s, and Limbaugh’s outrage are nothing new.  Conservative activists have long been convinced of a far-reaching plot to substitute state control of children for that of parents.

 

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Conservatives and the Common Core

What do conservatives think about the emerging Common Core State Standards?

As with any question, ask a hundred conservatives and you’ll likely get a hundred different answers.
However, some distinct themes have emerged in recent months.

First, many conservative politicians and activists object to the Common Core’s implications for the creeping expansion of government.  Some insist that the standards add another layer of inaccessible, distant, controlling, expensive central control.

Second, conservatives object that the new national standards chip away at parental control of children’s education.  With greater central control, parents and responsive local governments will lose that much more ability to control directly what goes in their local public schools.

Both of these are storied conservative protests against the trends in public education.

Before we examine these themes and their histories, let’s look at the CCSS themselves.  So far, forty-five states, plus the District of Columbia and Department of Defense schools have adopted these standards.  Supporters of the CCSS insist these are not imposed by the federal government, but rather created jointly by state education officials.  The reasons for such standards are many, according to supporters.  In the words of the CCSS Initiative,

“High standards that are consistent across states provide teachers, parents, and students with a set of clear expectations that are aligned to the expectations in college and careers. The standards promote equity by ensuring all students, no matter where they live, are well prepared with the skills and knowledge necessary to collaborate and compete with their peers in the United States and abroad. Unlike previous state standards, which were unique to every state in the country, the Common Core State Standards enable collaboration between states on a range of tools and policies.”    

Conservatives are not the only ones to dispute these claims.  Progressive critics (see one example here) often lament the new standards’ failure to consider adequately individual student situations.  Some progressives call the standards a greedy corporate power grab.  Others lament the goal of squeezing all young minds into a procrustean bed of regurgitative multiple-choice testing instead of pursuing the more difficult goal of authentic learning for real students.  Alfie Kohn, for instance, insisted that national standards would “squeeze the life out of classrooms” by mandating one-size-fits-all education, dictated by self-seeking corporate interests.

When conservative activists and pundits critique the CCSS, it is usually on different grounds.  Writing for the Heritage Foundation, for example, Lindsey Burke warned, “The push for centralized control over what every child should learn has never had more momentum.”  CCSS, which Burke called “national standards,” represented a “challenge to educational freedom in America.”  Implementation of the standards would be expensive, Burke pointed out.  Even worse, these standards reversed the proper structure of education.  Instead of more and more central control, Burke argued, “Education reform should give control over education to those closest to students.”

The Heritage Foundation’s Rachel Sheffield praised state lawmakers who pushed to exit the CCSS.  In Indiana, for instance, conservative state lawmakers have proposed a bill to put the CCSS on hold.  One of the requirements of Indiana’s Senate Bill 193, for instance, will be to include parent members on the standards committee.  Another will be to allow any parent to challenge their children’s standard-based high-stakes test results.

These themes—federal overreach and parental control—have long been central to conservative educational activism.

As we’ve noted, agitation against federal intrusion into the local politics of education has been an important element of conservative educational activism since at least the 1940s.  Though it might come as a surprise to some, before the 1940s many conservatives endorsed increased centralization of education policy, as Douglas Slawson has noted in his excellent book The Department of Education Battle, 1918-1932.

The second conservative worry about CCSS also has a long history.  Conservative pundits have argued for decades that parents need more control over their children’s education.  Back in the 1960s, conservative educational leader Max Rafferty insisted, “Children do not belong to the state. They do not belong to us educators, either. They belong to their parents and to nobody else.  And don’t you forget it.”  (Source: Rafferty, On Education, pg. 9)

Note one protester's button: "Parent Power"

Note one protester’s button: “Parent Power”

These conservative concerns spanned the country and the decades.  As historian Ron Formisano noted in his landmark 1991 history of Boston disputes over forced busing, parents insisted on their fundamental rights to determine their own children’s educational careers.  As anti-busing leader Louise Hicks fumed, “If under a court order a child can be forcibly taken from his parents into unfamiliar, often hostile neighborhoods, then we shall have opened a pandora’s box of new, unlimited government powers” (pg. 192).

Similarly, President Reagan insisted in 1983, “I believe that parents, not Government, have the primary responsibility for the education of their children.  Parental authority is not a right conveyed by the state; rather, parents delegate to their elected school board representatives and State legislators the responsibility for their children’s schooling.”  (Source: Catherine Lugg, For God and Country, pg. 136).

Across the spectrum of conservative belief and activism, we hear similar echoes.  In 1989, for instance, creationist leader Ken Ham warned that “Most parents have left the training of their children to the church, school or college.”  No wonder, Ham argued, that children embraced anti-God theologies.

So when conservatives in 2013 warn that CCSS will undermine parental control, they draw on a rich tradition of conservative thought and activism.  Schools must remain on a tight leash, many conservatives have insisted over the years.  If allowed too much power, centralizing educational authorities will take over.