School choice will revive parental responsibility

parental responsibilityTeacher union sentinels warn us that school choice will rescue only the more promising students from a rejected public school, damaging that school further by their absence. The parents most likely to exercise their new authority – say the critics – will be those more concerned and sophisticated. In any case, the private schools chosen will then cull and reject the less attractive applicants; this predicted behavior is labeled “creaming,” “cherry-picking” and the like. Empirical study of private school admission practices puts this latter rap in serious question. Further, the design of state systems of choice in years ahead seem increasingly likely to assure fair inclusion of the poor without threatening the school’s identity.

But private school behavior will not be my subject. My focus, rather, will be the likelihood of change over time in the behavior of those parents who do not participate in the first round of choice and who seem out of the game. Will these fathers and mothers in due course become aware? And, once they grasp that they have authority, will they use it? What will be the effect on child and society?

One begins by asking: How do residents of lower-income neighborhoods today learn about change in the life styles of their neighbors? The urban sociologists whom I know seem to this day to recognize the efficacy of the grapevine. Its enhancement by the Internet is hard to estimate, but surely the overall effect of the modern organs of scuttlebutt will be to increase connectivity. Together, these social twines should be sufficient to spread the word in the neighborhood that Alice’s kid has left P.S. 99 for St. Mary’s.

But the most effective messengers of this sad news will be children themselves. The departing student’s stay-behind friend will be disappointed; his or her mother will get the message at dinner. Indeed, once defection has begun, there will be no hiding the new game, even from the duller parent. In addition one must remember: once choice has at last created competition for less well-off students, it will behoove every school to advertise its special charms in the most inventive ways to all families.

It is highly improbable that the slower-motion parent, once she really knows, will forever sit on her hands. She will, instead, begin to fumble and stumble toward participation. She will make mistakes, and there will be no want of charlatans and incompetents who, on occasion, will get the advantage of her. There will, in short, be a burst of variety, good and bad; and if – in the long run – one brand proves ideal for all of us, we will be happily surprised. However, there could well be one best educational recipe for that very specific person, little George. Experimentation by his parent may work its discovery for him; and that would now be possible for every child.

But is this a good idea? Society has for very long trusted only the haves among us with their own child; yet should that trust be extended to the have-nots? Apart from test scores, what will be the social and civic consequences?

As the nation gradually faces this issue, what is often overlooked is the positive effect of empowerment upon the parent herself. She becomes the groping, striving hopeful creature that is the rest of us. She can at last seek her own child’s way like the luckier among us. And, if she is not presently their equivalent in savvy, here is her opportunity – if only gradually – to become so by steady application of the three qualities that are unique to parents: love, insight and personal responsibility.

No government agent can substitute for parental caring; and no one but she knows so well the unique personal identity of the child that is outside the ken of the professional. Finally, no other adult will suffer as she must, if the child grows up defeated by his long sentence to this regimen of strangers that we have imposed on families like hers. School choice is, for the parent, a form of long-term insurance protecting the family as family.

Finally, look at school choice from the child’s perspective. What could be more desiccating for the child’s spirit than the discovery that his parents are powerless to affect the most consuming experience of his young life. For seven hours a day, 180 days a year – for 13 years – unchosen, inescapable strangers tell the student explicitly or by implication that the essence of the good life is a matter for each of us to define for himself. What, then, does the institution of family appear to the child other than one or two well-meaning but impotent adults with arbitrary opinions? He meets them for a moment in the morning rush, then again after the best hours of the day have been spent with Mr. X – whose only advice to Joe is to find himself. His parents say they have a specific view of the good, but, in the world outside, their opinion doesn’t seem to count. Does he want to grow up stuck, like them, with children whom he can’t help? Family looks to him like responsibility with no power. I guess, after all, I’ll just be myself; but where do I start – the gang? Are they “myself”?

Perhaps there is some insightful social-psychologist who has focused upon the personal and civic effects of the disempowerment of so many parents by the American system. I could have missed something, and I hope so; in any case, here lies the endgame for school choice. Better test scores would be a good outcome and is a valid hope for choice, but our true national treasure will lie in this opportunity to stimulate the resurgence of the responsible lower-income parent and the responsive child with all its positive civic implications. The village needs its families.

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BY John E. Coons

John E. Coons is a professor of law, emeritus, University of California at Berkeley, and author with Stephen D. Sugarman of "Private Wealth and Public Education" and "Education by Choice."