Parent preference is not foolproof

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We’ve always known about the giant schism on the Left when it comes to school choice, but we are now seeing a divide emerge on the Right around the same issue. And while most of the conversation and debate has been around accountability measures like test scores and graduation rates, there is another potential red flag that no one seems to be talking about.

For some, mostly of the more libertarian ilk, a parent’s satisfaction is all the accountability we need, and any kind of regulation or forced accountability measures are nothing more than unnecessary government intrusion. For others, there has to be a minimum standard that every school must meet before any parent should be able to choose it.

It’s not only a philosophical conundrum but also a moral one, and it has taken on even greater urgency in our current climate of “fake news” and “alternative facts.” We know certain things to be true and certain things to be false and wrong, and we need to teach these to children. So while we can and should debate ideology and policy, we can’t abdicate our responsibility of having an educated citizenry. Zero checks and balances on what kids are learning and how well they’re learning it is a dangerous idea that some seem to increasingly embrace. Zero accountability other than parent demand leaves the door wide open for a Wild West of content in schools that’s not bound by state or federal education laws or reliant on government dollars.

There is overwhelming evidence already that our schools aren’t getting the job done when it comes to civics education or what E.D. Hirsch Jr. calls “cultural literacy.” But we will have a catastrophe on our hands if the problem isn’t simply that students don’t know who Neil Armstrong is, but that they also deny his significance because they don’t accept his act of walking on the moon as the truth.

Taken to its extreme, this idea of zero accountability could lead to zero standards and, therefore, no commonality or even agreement around what students learn. One school could skip math. Another could skip reading. Another could skip both.

Students could also be taught intolerance and hate. If there were no basic standards grounded in American values and ideals (as aspirational as they may be), students could be taught, as part of the curriculum, to discriminate based on race and religion. They could listen to dishonest teachings about Martin Luther King Jr. and Susan B. Anthony and conclude that their courage and advocacy weren’t heroic—or even real. They could learn that Rosa Parks never existed, that Barack Obama wasn’t born in the United States, and that the United States government planned and carried out the attacks of September eleventh.

This may sound like hyperbole. But I recently met with a CEO originally from rural Kentucky who shared that it was common where he grew up for folks in the community to deny facts that most of us consider to be beyond debate. “They don’t believe we ever walked on the moon. They don’t even believe the earth is round,” he lamented.

We know that conspiracy theorist Alex Jones exists and has an enormous following. Many of the people who follow him and his Infowars website are parents. Bill Ayers of the Weather Underground also has many fans. Are we okay with these two and those who think like them deciding what students will learn (and not learn) in any of our schools? Even if that’s what some parents want?

Our answer, no matter how much we respect parent choice, has to be an unequivocal no. 

Erika Sanzi
Erika Sanzi is a Senior Visiting Fellow at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute