When only some parents' values get respect

Two of the liveliest and most contentious issues in American education crossed paths in the pages of the Washington Post a couple of Sundays ago.

We’re talking about school choice and transgender students.

The Post Magazine that morning featured an extensive piece on advocates helping to free home-schooled children from stifling parental religious values and other unpleasantness. The would-be rescuers’ intent is to help these youths “escape” their home environs and pursue more mainstream lives. Because most states have been lobbied (by the Home School Legal Defense Association and others) to regulate home-schooling with a very light touch, private efforts have sprung up to assist young people whom their rescuers believe are being subjected to irresponsible or harmful parenting.

The advocates range from individual attorneys—several of them former home-schooled youngsters themselves—to small organizations like the Center for Home Education Policy, the Coalition for Responsible Home Schooling, and Homeschooling’s Invisible Children. The story makes quite clear that—no matter how well-intentioned or loving the parents in question believe themselves to be—that what these advocates are doing is noble, necessary, and wholly admirable.

It’s estimated that there are about two million home-schooled kids in the United States today—that’s about two-thirds as many as attend charter schools—and their numbers are steadily rising. Home-schooling is, of course, a form of school choice. And, as with any choice, it’s appropriate to reflect upon the proper boundaries between family and society when it comes to ensuring that youth are satisfactorily educated. We trust that even the most ardent champion of parental choice would recoil from the notion of an aspiring terrorist keeping children at home to drill them in the cause of jihad. So there are inevitably limits.

That’s hardly a novel insight. Western civilization has always wrestled with this tension and American thinkers since the time of Jefferson and Benjamin Rush have struggled with society’s obligation to see that children are safe and that they’re educated in such a way as to become productive, self-sufficient adults. Even Milton Friedman recognized that school vouchers would inevitably entail some community-imposed constraints; the perpetual question is how intrusive those should be.

Similarly, states have long recognized that when parents or guardians abuse a child, society has the right—and responsibility—to remove that child from harm. But parents have rights, too—rights recognized by the Supreme Court almost a century ago and rights that lie at the core of the policy arguments on behalf of school choice. How to strike a workable balance between parental authority and the public interest? And whose job it ought to be to intervene when that balance gets out of whack? There’s no reason to think that many children suffer from being home schooled. Indeed, many appear to benefit. But some surely suffer—and more than a few observers, especially the kind found in our universities and newsrooms, seem to believe that many do.

Speaking of which. In the other Washington Post piece that same day, columnist Petula Dvorak related the tribulations of Tyler, a transgender boy, and his mother. The tale is about the challenges of living in a community in which not everyone is comfortable with transgender individuals—in this case including the father of one of Tyler’s pals. The mom—and the columnist—share their angst, with the mom declaring her determination to ensure that Tyler has “a real childhood. And that’s what I wanted for him.”

More than a few observers may worry that the mom’s decisions don’t promote Tyler’s long-term well-being, suggesting that first- and second-graders are not mature enough to make gender determinations. They might judge that Tyler’s mother—with the purest parental love and best intentions—is failing her progeny.

It’s beyond imagining that such skeptics will ever win a sympathetic profile in the Washington Post or New York Times. Indeed, even the suggestion that parents like Tyler’s are harming their kids is enough to get the suggester pilloried today.

Without taking sides in these delicate, profoundly personal matters, we will simply observe that the high culture’s respect for parental rights seems increasingly asymmetric. Journalism and education are rife with angst about the problematic values being passed on by the more devout and conservative half of the nation, but seem mostly admiring of values and beliefs espoused by those on the other end of the ideological spectrum.

Yet another recent Post story underscored this asymmetry. In the paper’s “Solo-ish” column, Britany Robinson penned a cheery column on contractual co-parenting and online services that facilitate such arrangements among acquaintances—or among total strangers. While plenty of readers may regard such trends as deeply disconcerting when it comes to the well-being of the kids involved, Robinson’s story was an unapologetic advertisement for this practice, untouched by any visible doubt.

These are the thorniest of questions and we make no claims to have answers (simple or otherwise). But surely it would be healthy if those cheering efforts to “save” children from parental religiosity acknowledged that people of goodwill may envision more than one kind of risk to children, and recognized how deeply and honestly we may disagree about what good parenting looks like.

Chester E. Finn, Jr.
Chester E. Finn, Jr. is a Distinguished Senior Fellow and President Emeritus of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute.