Who is Responsible for Your Child's Education?

Anyone willing to objectively look at the data regarding the performance of today’s public schools will admit that the system is crumbling. Reformers of all sorts regularly put forth a variety of proposed solutions including vouchers, more accountability for teachers and administrators, increased technology, more choice, a return to phonics, and myriad others. Yet there is one part of the equation that is rarely mentioned: parents.

Early in American history, education was recognized for its importance.  During the colonial period, few thought that a poorly educated population would be able to govern itself. Today, few would disagree.

Indeed, to have a republic such as ours, the citizens need to be at the very least literate, moral (broadly speaking), and aware of how their government works. If you cannot read, how can you effectively elect a candidate? If you do not know how the government works or which position has certain powers, how can you vote for the right candidate? And on morality, a free society such as ours does not run if trust evaporates. Trust can be maintained if individuals for the most part are moral; they keep their word, don’t steal, and certainly don’t harm others.

If literacy and morality are necessary agents for a free republic then who is responsible to uphold them? Arguably, it is the parents. Parents choose to bring a child into the world, not the other individuals in our society. It is fair therefore for an individual to ask, “Why should I be responsible for some other parent’s kid?” At the same time, if you ask that question, you must also recognize that since you live in a self-governing society you are impacted by illiteracy, immorality, and ignorance in the general population.

To solve this problem, Horace Mann and other American education reformers in the early- and mid-1800s argued that the responsibility to educate children belonged to society and government. From that time to today, education and all it encompasses (including literacy, morals, and knowledge of our republican form of government) has been primarily the duty of government.

But perhaps we have gone astray. By handing the responsibility of education of our children over to government, have we put in motion the eventual destruction of our free society?

The important difference in education prior to Horace Mann was that it was foremost the responsibility of the parent, not the state. Recognizing, again, that uneducated children would lead to the collapse of our system of government, some colonials enforced legal obligations. If the parent failed to provide proper education and care for a child, then the parent could be fined. If the parent continued to fail at his or her responsibilities, then the child would become a ward of the state. It’s an interesting proposition that is sure to provoke the ire of libertarians, conservatives, and liberals alike.

An early example of such a law is the Massachusetts School Law of 1642. On the importance of education for a society based on self-government, the law has this to say:

Forasmuch as the good education of children is of singular behoof and benefit to any Common-wealth; and wheras many parents & masters are too indulgent and negligent of their duty in that kinde.

It is therfore ordered that the Select men of everie town, in the severall precincts and quarters where they dwell, shall have a vigilant eye over their brethren & neighbours, to see, first that none of them shall suffer so much barbarism in any of their families as not to indeavour to teach by themselves or others, their children & apprentices so much learning as may inable them perfectly to read the english tongue, & knowledge of the Capital Lawes…

Understandably, at the time Massachusetts was a fairly homogeneous, Christian-based society compared to what it is today. With that in mind, it’s still interesting to consider the importance they placed on the role in teaching morality:

Also that all masters of families doe once a week (at the least) catechize their children and servants in the grounds & principles of Religion, & if any be unable to doe so much: that then at the least they procure such children or apprentices to learn some short orthodox catechism without book…

While most of us would be uncomfortable with Christianity being forcibly taught to all children, it is fair to say that most of us do want children to have some moral footing upon which to stand. Additionally, we recognize that the ability to have a moral society that allows for the trust of strangers is critical and cannot last if the population has little to no moral foundation.

It’s interesting to note that the law also requires parents to make sure that their children are trained for an occupation:

And further that all parents and masters do breed & bring up their children & apprentices in some honest lawful calling, labour or imployment, either in husbandry, or some other trade profitable for themselves, and the Common-wealth if they will not or cannot train them up in learning to fit them for higher imployments.

So what does the law say about parents who fail to uphold their responsibilities as parents? The first punishment for poor parenting would be a fine of “twentie shillings for each neglect therin.” And for those parents who simply do not take responsibility for the education and upbringing of their children:

And if any of the Select men after admonition by them given to such masters of families shal finde them still negligent of their dutie in the particulars aforementioned, wherby children and servants become rude, stubborn & unruly; the said Select men with the help of two Magistrates, or the next County court for that Shire, shall take such children or apprentices from them & place them with some masters for years (boyes till they come to twenty one, and girls eighteen years of age compleat) which will more strictly look  unto, and force them to submit unto government according to the rules of this order, if by fair means and former instructions they will not be drawn into it.

To our modern sensibilities, such a punishment seems severe. To libertarians, conservatives, and liberals alike, the idea of the state interjecting itself into the homes of families is repulsive. To any realist, the idea of taking children from irresponsible parents would fundamentally alter the landscape of society today. To all of those who object (and understandably so), we should not forget that there are still in place today severe punishments for parents who do not send their children to school and who do not properly care for their children. Furthermore, certain very tough questions still remain:

  • Is the current system working?
  • Should I be responsible for the education of every child in America? Or, should the parents of the children be held responsible?
  • Can our system of self-government long stand if the population is illiterate, immoral, and/or ignorant? If not, who should intervene when parents fail to uphold their responsibilities? And what if the schools fail in their current responsibilities?  
  • By what standard does the government suppose its ability to uphold morality and literacy is superior to parents?
  • How do we know someone is educated? In other words, what are adequate levels of morality, literacy, and knowledge of government and civil society?

To those who say that we, as a society, already debated those questions and that the public school system we have today is the answer, I would ask you to dig deeper into the history of education reform. You can do so here:

Horace Mann and American Education Reform
John Dewey, Pragmatism, and Progressive Education
Progressive Education since World War II

You will find that many of the education reforms implemented in this country were a reaction to Catholic immigrants coming from Ireland, Germany, and Eastern and Southern Europe. In other words, the system in place during the colonial period wasn’t failing. In fact, you will find that their literacy rates were often higher than our literacy rates today. The truth is that a compulsory public school system was seen as a way to control and mold the population, first by the white, Anglo-Saxon Protestants and later by progressives and eventually socialists.

The question of how best to achieve an educated society isn’t an easy one. Arguably, some level of governmental interference will always be necessary in a self-governing society such as ours. Nonetheless, the idea of “Selectmen” watching over me seems antithetical to living free. So, too, does the idea of a compulsory education system in which I hand over my children to strangers on a near-daily basis.

Last week, we learned that less than half of the students who took the 2013 ACT test could read at college-ready levels. Here's the graph from ACT:

 Compare this to the ACT reading results from 2010:

 Progressive Education since World War II

There is improvement in Science and the overall score, but frankly these numbers still tell us that the current system is failing and must be reformed, if not rebuilt.

Rather than finding new ways for the state and society to be responsible for the education of children, perhaps we should take a lesson from the past and consider ways to rebuild the entire education system on the premise that parents should be the first ones held responsible for their children’s educations.

Such a system doesn’t need to mean that we have “Selectmen” looking in our windows all the time. It does mean that parents would have to change their mindset. Rather than be able to blame the teachers and administrators for a child’s poor progress, the parent would have to look at his or her self when considering the performance of a child. Additionally, when schools do fail, parents would have the freedom to pursue the best possible education for their children rather than being forced to send their children to a failing public school system as so many are now.


For further reading, please consider:

What is Education?
Education in Colonial America

Horace Mann and American Education Reform

John Dewey, Pragmatism, and Progressive Education

Progressive Education since WWII