Prof. Josh Corngold is an Associate Professor of Education at TU and a 2022-23 fellow in the Freedom seminar. In this essay, Corngold discusses the boundaries of parents’ rights when it comes to education, arguing ultimately against recent “divisive concepts legislation” that has been implemented in Oklahoma and other states across the US.
How much authority should parents wield over their children’s formal education? This question has confounded free societies at least since the advent of universal public schooling and compulsory attendance laws. Today, perhaps as much as at any time, it is a question that begs for clearheaded analysis, as fervent calls to “respect parents’ rights” reverberate in the U.S. capital, in statehouses, and at school board meetings across the country.
In free societies, parents enjoy wide latitude to raise their children in accordance with their particular conceptions of the good life. State interference in childrearing is generally reserved for instances in which parents plainly fail to meet their filial obligations (e.g. cases of abuse and neglect). In such instances, the state is obligated to step in under the doctrine of parens patriae, which grants power and authority to the state to protect those who are unable to protect themselves. But otherwise, in acknowledgement of the importance of family intimacy, and out of respect for parents’ interests in passing their particular values onto their children, the state is properly reluctant to interfere in childrearing.
Does this mean that parents should enjoy carte blanche authority to control their children’s formal education? There are good reasons to think otherwise. After all, children are not mere extensions of their parents. They are instead separate persons with rights and interests of their own. Developing a capacity for self-government—for eventually deciding for themselves how to live—is one important educational interest of children. Another is developing a capacity to participate as civic equals in the democratic process. For its part, the state also has a basic interest in ensuring that children become self-sufficient adults who are capable of exercising their rights and responsibilities as democratic citizens.
A functioning democracy teaches children to engage thoughtfully and critically with different values, beliefs, and perspectives—including those that deviate from the norms of their parents, peer groups, local or online communities, or any other agents of influence in children’s lives. When parents (or any other authorities) seek to exert ongoing plenary control over children’s formal education, the threat looms that those children will be discouraged from considering alternative worldviews and from realizing their capacity for independent reflection. This undermines children’s budding sovereignty over their own lives and their participation as civic equals in collective self-rule.
Decision-making authority over children’s formal education is thus properly shared—among parents, the state, professional educators, and children themselves. This authority-sharing arrangement still leaves a lot of room for parents to decide on the particular direction their children’s education will take. To the extent that such options are available to them, parents may enroll their children in a variety of public, charter, or private (including parochial) schools. Parents are also permitted, in all 50 states, to homeschool their children. Yet none of these decisions go unchecked. As the U.S. Supreme Court affirmed in Pierce v. Society of Sisters (1925), the state has the authority “to regulate all schools, to inspect, supervise, and examine them, their teachers and pupils.” Protecting children’s prospective interests in self-government and democratic citizenship, as well as the state’s interest in the latter, requires such oversight.
When parents’ rights claims are invoked with respect to formal schooling—either by a group of parents themselves, a group of “parent advocates,” or politicians and operatives who seek to drum up their base—the state must consider how acceding to these claims may undermine the independent educational interests of children, as well as the state’s own civic interests. Sometimes parents’ rights claims are invoked to justify exemptions from education requirements, as when parents seek to withdraw children from certain curricular programs (e.g. sex education) on the grounds that such programs conflict with the parents’ moral or religious convictions. In the case of sex education, questions emerge as to whether accommodating such exemptions will exact an unacceptable cost on individual children’s health and wellbeing, if not the public health. This is not to deny that state and local officials may legitimately decide, after a period of sustained deliberation, that there are countervailing reasons of sufficient weight to honor such exemptions. The potential impact on children’s interests and the state’s interests, however, must enter the decision-making calculus.
With respect to the “divisive concepts” bills that have recently been adopted in several state legislatures, including Oklahoma’s, parents’ rights are being invoked not to justify exemptions for particular students, but rather to deny all children (or all children up to a certain grade level) access to content and viewpoints about race, gender, sexual identity, etc. Many parents, children, school personnel, and concerned citizens recoil at these bills and the use of parents’ rights discourse to defend them—and for good reason. Divisive concepts legislation is an exercise in demagoguery and “triumphalism” (i.e. using the political process to advance a particular doctrine which adherents believe is superior to and should triumph over all others). It establishes social and political orthodoxies (of heteronormativity, colorblindness, etc.) in the schools, inflicts harm on students of color and members of the LGBTQIA+ community, and undermines all students’ ability to engage in rational reflection on matters of significant personal and social concern. Appeals to parents’ rights certainly have their place in a free, democratic republic, but divisive concepts legislation represents a particularly egregious use of such appeals for divisive political ends.