Editor’s note: This entry comes from John E. Coons, who has championed the cause of school choice for four decades and co-founded the American Center for School Choice. He is Professor of Law Emeritus at the University of California, Berkeley, and with colleague Stephen D. Sugarman is the author of Private Wealth and Public Education. He is our newest host of redefinED.
We founded the American Center for School Choice because we believe a focus on parental empowerment can contribute to a broadening and coalescing of the coalition that seeks to provide the best possible education for children. Simultaneously, empowering parents creates a common good—for the child, the parent, the family, and society.
We begin with the delicate subject of authority—that of parent or of government over the mind of the young. In our culture, authority over thought (or even behavior) has never been a popular premise for argument. But no other way exists; some adult will in fact select a preferred set of skills and values and will attempt, through schooling, to convince Johnny, Susie, Jamal, or Juanita of their truth. Authority is simply a fact.
Whether one is Democrat, Republican, Libertarian, or the National Education Association, we must proceed by asking which big person will decide this issue for some little person. The fact of authority is no exit, but it is instead the necessary entrance to the debate of educators and society about content, values, money, liberty, the best interest of the child, and the common good.
The debate on authority dates from Plato’s vision in the The Republic of an ideal state that would completely disempower parents for a utopian common good and continues up to modern times. But in the U.S., the question of who has authority over the child has been universally resolved in all 50 states in favor of parents. In every state the custodial parent, whether natural or adoptive, holds a very wide ranging legal authority over his, her, or their own child. This sovereignty includes every experience of the child that the parent can physically and intellectually control short of neglect and abuse. It encompasses diet, hours, church, pets, exercise, and television as well as the power to decide who else shall have access to the child. This power to control access and environment includes, again, within broadest limits, the satisfaction of the parents’ obligation to school the child and the child’s own right to be schooled.
This authority has been tested in a steady line of Supreme Court cases since 1925. The parent who is legally fit to govern—99% of our parents—in truth has the right to govern. And the point of the law is not that parents make particularly good decisions for the children; individual mothers and fathers may or may not act in what you or I consider the best interest of the child or society. They are not necessarily good deciders; they are merely the best our culture, law, and history have discovered. They also have accountability in ways that are impossible to the world of American professionals, of doctors, lawyers, educators, and so forth. These people see clients for a time, do their best, wish them well, and head on home. The custodial parent is stuck—for better or worse and maybe for life—with what emerges out of whatever effort is made.
This wide acceptance throughout American society and its legal system of deference to and accountability for parental authority forms the foundation for broadening the support for choice in education. Our current system is an aberration of the way the rest of American life functions.