Sunday, September 9, 2012

School Choice, Parents, and the Republican & Democratic National Conventions

While education was clearly not the central focus of either party’s national convention this year, both did note it within speeches and party platforms. Interestingly, education is one of the few areas in which President Obama’s vision shares many similarities with those of the Republicans, particularly in regard to accountability, performance-based pay for teachers, relatively low U.S. scores on international rankings, and proliferation of charter schools. But one area in which they are starkly different was central to the Republican speeches (especially that of Jeb Bush) and will likely become a major focus of Republican initiatives if they win control the White House: school choice. The Republican party platform declares choice “as the most important driving force for renewing our schools.” Certainly we have already begun to see increasing numbers of states considering Republican-proposed school choice legislation in the past year.

Within the Republicans’ discussions of school choice at the convention there was mention of the economic ideologies of competition that support it, but the real emphasis was on the parents. The very first word in the Republican platform was “parents” and the second line states their “support [for] providing broad education choices to parents.” In Jeb Bush’s speech he entreated that we need to provide “parents the choices they deserve.” U.S. Republicans are certainly not alone in emphasizing parents’ role in educational decision-making. Article 26 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights quickly follows (perhaps even trumps?) stating the child’s right to an education with the parent’s right to choose the kind of education the child receives. Many people, parents and nonparents alike, can appreciate the important role parents should play in directing the education of their children and can safely assume that most parents would choose what is best for their child. What will be interesting to watch play out should Mitt Romney win the election is the extent to which the expansion of school choice is based on the parents’ interests rather than the child’s—an, admittedly, difficult thing to separate at times.

Across the country, the Republican party is struggling with the appropriate place of parents within school choice and within schools in general. For instance, I noted in a post in this blog earlier this year a new Republican-sponsored law in New Hampshire that allows parents to choose to remove their child from curricula they disagree with and demand an alternative. Elsewhere, in Missouri, a new Republican-backed law protects children’s espousal of religious views on school grounds (most of which likely are learned from and held by their parents) and provides opt-out opportunities for parents to invoke when school teachings might conflict with those beliefs. Finally, the Texas GOP released their platform in July and it calls for a restriction on teaching critical thinking because such practices challenge students’ fixed opinions (also presumably inculcated by their parents) and challenge parental authority. Republican leaders and their constituents must ask them/ourselves how to balance the exercise of parental choice, the protected place of parental values in the education of their children, and the educational opportunities for growth and expanded worldviews presented to children in schools. In the meantime voters will have to determine whether they trust the GOP to make good decisions when it comes to parental choice in education.

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