Betsy DeVos is known for her support of “the voucher system” for public education (Nazaryan 2017, 39; Disare 2017, 49). In this system, parents are given a certain amount of voucher money for child tuition which can be used at the school of their choice, regardless of that school’s beliefs and affiliations. This would potentially remove the burden from schools of adopting a lowest-common-denominator worldview, while allowing them to retain federal funding for education. Critics aver that this leaves schools without accountability, doubting the effectiveness of free market forces in regulating quality (Nazaryan 2017, 39). DeVos proclaims that we should return to parents a say in their child’s education (check out this CPAC speech, 2:45-3:04).
The debate neglects to address a culture of parental irresponsibility. I do not mean parental irresponsibility in low socio-economic families with young or absentee parents. Rather, irresponsibility grips the most affluent families in our society—along with their lower-income counterparts. Parents, truth be told, are not going to supply an easy answer; parents are the problem. Conservatives who want to turn back the clock and reconstitute the family’s domain have not confronted the real damage our history of letting the state be our kids’ parent has done to our parenting mentality. It is not only policies, but hearts that must be renovated.
It begins with money. Parental rights are only assumed through accepted parental responsibility. For many Americans, federal funding for education is a given. Yet Christians in the homeschool or classical Christian school movement have pointed to passages such as Eph. 6:4 to show that education is the parents’ job. Most often, they call on Ephesians to support the parental right to oversee the content of their child’s education. But if education is the parents’ job, paying for it must be too. We cannot expect to call the shots if we do not cover the bill.
Historically, relinquishing the financial responsibility is the first step. Another milestone of duties palmed off was that maker of manners, that bonder of cultures, the table—yea, even the lunch table. In an article titled, “From Charity to Security: The Emergence of the National School Lunch Program,” Jennifer Geist Rutledge explains how an idea that many Boards of Education initially resisted as an encroachment on the family sphere—the national school lunch program—gained widespread acceptance. Though nutritional health among the young was recognized as a problem in the early twentieth century, Rutledge claims that, “the national government adopted a very limited approach for supporting families, largely believing the issue to be one solved by the market or charities” (Geist Rutledge 2015, 196). Charitable institutions did in fact run school lunch programs at that time.
What changed from then to now? Rutledge compares the American story to that of Britain: for both nations, the question was decided by arguments of national security. First the Great Depression played its part; as foreign trade was cut off, farmers accumulated huge surpluses of crops, meat, and dairy. Beginning in 1933, this extra food was subsidized by the government for use in school lunches, until the advent of war shifted the flow of resources to soldiers. The days of surplus now gone, some objected that the government would be encroaching on family structure to continue running school lunches. For agriculturalists who wanted to hang on to their subsidies, national security became the new justification; healthy young students made for healthy soldiers to man future armies, they claimed. As often happens, resistance to growth in government was stifled by the rhetoric of dire need (Ibid., 197-9).
The government providing tuition and lunch is like the paper on the wall for our society. But it was not unquestioned at its inception. It holds the germ of the idea that when parents fall short, the government can conscionably fill the gap. This idea has sprouted into a turgid sense of entitlement among parents. The government is no longer a back-up plan for parental failure; it is plan A for basic parenting duties.
Brace yourselves for a truly horrifying new social program: toilet training. Yes, indeed, parents are trying to get rid of that job too (not surprisingly, one might argue). The Association of Teachers and Lecturers noticed a rise in non-toilet-trained school children, so with ERIC they did a study with seven hundred school staff members to assess the increase in children coming to school untrained (Education Journal 2016, 8). The relevant age bracket (3-5 years) showed a 100% increase of non-toilet training from five years ago. Notice, that percentage does not represent kids being sent away younger; it represents the same age group, with parents opting out of potty training at home. Teachers who are neither trained nor staffed to provide the individualized focus potty-training requires are being matched up two staff members to thirty-kid classes and left to deal with the ticking accident-bombs (Ibid., 8).
Liberals rail against Betsy DeVos’ appointment in part because of her history of supporting the “voucher system.” Conservatives who bemoan the loss of scholastic freedom in our country since the increase of government involvement with education—still singing sagas of our defeat over prayer in schools—may be intrigued by a suggestion promising to return the decision-making powers of education to parents while leaving the bill to the state. But the problem with parental involvement is no longer that the government has forced its way in. It is that parents willingly abdicate their role, palming off their children to go work extra hours. Perhaps their nonchalance is what gives leftists the nerve to be skeptical that the scrutiny of parents will be enough to hold schools accountable. The idea that parents should be free to choose the manner of their child’s education is sound. What we see around us prompts us to ask, “What are parents doing with the choices and responsibilities they still have?” Unfortunately, the answer we get from the potty training survey is not so dazzling.
Disare, Monica. 2017. Linda Darling-Hammond on the Future of New York Education–And What She Makes of Betsy DeVos. Education Digest 82, no. 8 (April): 48-52.
Geist Rutledge, Jennifer. 2015. From Charity to Security: The Emergence of the National School Lunch Program. History of Education 44, no. 2 (March): 187-206.
Nazaryan, Alexander. 2017. The Radical Education of Betsy DeVos. Newsweek Global (February 3): 36-43.
2016. Rise in Children Starting School Not Toilet Trained. Education Journal, no. 280 (September 27): 8.