On non-compulsory education

Cross-posted from Roland Dodds at But I Am A Liberal

I rarely find much to agree with when it comes to Utah state senators, but recent comments made to the Senate Site by Aaron Osmond (yes, those Osmonds), have received a decent amount of unfair scorn by the expected parties. The scores of comments at the Huffington Post link about Osmond’s argument were overwhelmingly negative and simplistic. This is what Osmond did say:

Some parents completely disengage themselves from their obligation to oversee and ensure the successful education of their children. Some parents act as if the responsibility to educate, and even care for their child, is primarily the responsibility of the public school system. As a result, our teachers and schools have been forced to become surrogate parents, expected to do everything from behavioral counseling, to providing adequate nutrition, to teaching sex education, as well as ensuring full college and career readiness.

Unfortunately, in this system, teachers rarely receive meaningful support or engagement from parents and occasionally face retaliation when they attempt to hold a child accountable for bad behavior or poor academic performance. (Emphasis mine)

On the other hand, actively engaged parents sometimes feel that the public school system, and even some teachers, are insensitive to the unique needs and challenges of their children and are unwilling or unable to give their child the academic attention they need because of an overburdened education system, obligated by law to be all things to all people.

I have been a teacher for nearly eight years, and I can affirm that Osmond’s argument is sound.

Many of our schools are a mess not because teachers have a pension or lack training, but due to an unwillingness in our society to treat our schools as places of learning. By that, I mean we have turned many classrooms into over-sized babysitting services. I have commented in the past on the need to provide youth and families agency in education related decisions, and have published academic papers on the positive and necessary role of public education in this country (fairly timely, I presented a paper last spring at the AERA on Teaching Pluralism and Islam in our public schools). However, each of Osmond’s points needs to be addressed individually if we want to have a real discussion on the future of American public education that doesn’t simply treat his position as nonsense because he is a Republican from Utah. I agree (with caveats) to the following points:

First, we need to restore the expectation that parents are primarily responsible for the educational success of their own children. That begins with restoring the parental right to decide if and when a child will go to public school. In a country founded on the principles of personal freedom and unalienable rights, no parent should be forced by the government to send their child to school under threat of fines and jail time.

Second, we need to shift the public mindset to recognize that education is not an obligation, but an opportunity to be treasured and respected. Utah’s constitution requires that we provide the opportunity for a free public education to every child. But public education is not free—it costs taxpayers billions each year. When a parent decides to enroll a child in public school, both the parent and child should agree to meet minimum standards of behavior and academic commitment or face real-life consequences such as repeating a class, a grade, or even expulsion.
Finally, if a parent decides to keep their child home or to go on a family vacation, it’s the responsibility of that parent to ensure their child completes the assignments and stays current with their class. Similarly, if a child consistently misbehaves, it’s the teacher’s right to send that child home to their parent until he or she is ready to respect and appreciate their opportunity to be educated.

The feel-good (and endlessly compulsory) environment we have imposed on our education system came from a good place. We wanted kids to be in school because we knew that it is to every individual’s benefit to be educated in a way that prepares them for the workplace they will enter. Perhaps more
importantly, public education in the US was fashioned to prepare this nation’s diverse citizenry for democratic governance in a pluralistic society.

Democratic values are not inherent, and the values our society holds dear must
be reinforced continuously if we expect those principles to propagate. An
uneducated society, where only a lucky few are taught the tools for critical analysis, will fail and descend into tyranny.

But Osmond is right: schools are expensive. When we decide to teach certain skills or ideas, we do so at the expense of others. There is only so much time in the day. The same goes for how we finance our schools. I have seen many classrooms that are plainly a waste. Not because the subject matter is of no use or the teacher is incompetent, rather, the students who are receiving the service do not honor or desire it. In my experience, the parents of said students also lack an appreciation for what a school is for, and treat it as a babysitting service outfitted with athletic facilities. Giving students, parents, and schools the right to say no to an individual’s presence would give all variables agency and let our schools focus on education and not behavior enforcement.

Where I find myself disagreeing with Osmond is his third point. He writes:

Third, we need to stop dictating the number of hours a child must be present in a classroom. Instead of requiring that teachers and students must be in class for 990 hours a year, lets enable our local school boards to determine the best use of a teacher’s time and focus student and parent expectations on educational outcomes such as completing assignments and passage of exams as the measurement of success for the opportunity to progress in public school.

While I respect community control over education related manners, part of the problem we have in this country is that we cater to local blowhards at the expense of our students. Some communities have sport enthusiasts who wrongly see school as a spring-board to a professional sports career. Others are full of religious whackjobs (of all stripes) who want pious nonsense taught to students, denying them logical discussion and an understanding of the scientific process. Giving power entirely to the local community has not produced positive results in the past, and there is something to be said of a move towards a nationalized curriculum that upholds certain standards regardless of geographic region or economic status.

Osmond may very well support a divestment from public education and towards “school choice” advocated by religious and corporate figures for decades. Yet I did not take that away from this piece. In the words he wrote at the Senate Site, I hear the reverberated arguments of countless educators I have come in contact with over the years. Our public education system is too vital to be gutted or left in cultural malaise. In a nation made up of many cultures, languages, and traditions, we need to have a common space where we all congregate and learn the values that make us a nation. Destroying the one institution that is capable of actually enabling the poor and the ambitious to achieve these goals would be a travesty. Additionally, defunding public education under the guise of “school choice” will eventually unravel the tenuous bonds that bind us as a nation, resulting in more ethnic conflict and distrust.

But each individual and family must honor their own education. Forcing students to stay in a school they will only resist, while then bemoaning the state of our schools, misses the problems facing our nation. Give our schools the right to say no, and we will begin to see a turnaround in our tired education system.