Can public education in the United States be saved? Given the stranglehold of teachers’ unions over school districts and state legislatures, the constant meddling of an ideologically motivated federal Education Department, the sheer weight of bureaucracy, and the commitment to mediocrity? Perhaps not. But we all should keep in mind that things could be far worse than they are for students and their parents. Take Germany, for example. In that former homeland of wisdom and learning, a law originally enacted under the Nazi regime has been given renewed force by a judge who has refused to return custody to Dirk and Petra Wunderlichs of their children on the grounds that they might take the kids outside Germany in order to homeschool them. And homeschooling, this judge and the German government declare, is a “concrete endangerment” to children.
There was a time, not so long ago, when a judge might have handed down the same kind of decision in many of our states. The flowering of the homeschool movement in this country was aided immeasurably by the decline of state laws enforcing mandatory schooling. Licensed private schools were allowed, of course, but homeschooling was, in a number of jurisdictions, illegal for decades. The same might happen again, of course. Several members of the Ohio state legislature recently attempted to gain a hearing for a bill that would have allowed social workers to play the role of that German judge, “protecting” children from the “concrete endangerment” of homeschooling.
But American education today is enriched by the existence of a widespread, active homeschool movement. Many others know more about this movement than do I, of course—for a variety of reasons, my wife and I have made the imperfect choice of parochial education for our kids, despite the problems of cost, quality, and sometimes problematic catechesis that entails. Nonetheless, homeschooling provides a crucial alternative to public schools, and even at times a counterweight to the power of our educratic elites. I can think of no better sign of how much the movement thrives than the numerous school districts in various states that offer homeschool families art, music, athletic and even science instruction and facilities in order to “claim” them for funding purposes, while leaving parents fundamentally in charge of their children’s education. Homeschoolers remain a small minority in our country, but have gained enough clout to defend themselves in important ways; the Ohio anti-homeschooling bill, for example, was all but ignored.
So, what does any of this have to do with the inestimable Annette Kirk, widow of Russell Kirk and head of the highly important Russell Kirk Center for Cultural Renewal? Her education story attests to the power of patience, careful drafting, and sheer persistence and—even more—principle. In the early years of the Reagan Administration, the Department of Education put together a National Commission on Excellence in Education. While supporters of the Administration had hoped the Commission would work to eliminate the Education Department altogether and return control to the states and localities, it soon became apparent that the Education Secretary (Terel Bell) and top bureaucrats had no intention of letting that happen, particularly given their choice of members for the Commission.
Annette Kirk was among those genuine conservatives placed on the Commission, and was soon pressed by many other conservatives to either resign or use her post to grandstand against the educrats intent on increasing federal power. After all, what of any substance could be accomplished by a conservative serving on a commission consisting mostly of establishment-types who simply wanted the government to throw more money and rules at public schools to make them “better”?
Quite a bit, actually. Again, in a sense no one would know this, given the continuing decline in public education. But principle does matter in politics. And somewhere along the way to yet another establishment report, some genuine reform proposals and useful dates were set forward and, much more importantly, a critical principle was inserted into the document, and salvaged for American education.
The principle? Parents are the first and primary educators of their children. Sounds obvious, no? Tell that to the German judge. Tell that to the Ohio state legislators. But the principle made it into A Nation at Risk, and President Reagan led with it in the press conference announcing release of the report.
So what, you say? What can a single phrase in a single report, even if highlighted by the President, do to save American education? It can provide public support for a longstanding tradition, helping protect it against ideological attacks during the shifting policy and legal battles in which our public life has for so long been embroiled. Liberal members of the commission were outraged at the press conference, and for good reason. This principle stands in the way of federal control over all aspects of education because it supports the right of parents to argue with, to fight, and even to withdraw from the clutches of those who have turned education, far too often, into mediocrity and politically correct indoctrination.
In the three decades since A Nation at Risk came out, American education has mostly gotten worse—much worse. Republican and Democratic administrations alike have increased federal controls, destructive “rubrics,” and the concomitant power of educrats hostile to the traditional texts and mores that once allowed for excellence in education. But, thanks in no small measure to homeschooling (and its related spin-off, “choice in education”), we have more choices, and more opportunities to give our kids opportunities for genuine, wholesome and nurturing educations that ground them in humane studies that can provide them with the spiritual, intellectual, and cultural grounding necessary for a good life. And we owe these choices to the continuing powerful, though obviously contested, recognition of the primary role of parents in educating their children. More than any other “reform,” an increasing respect for this principle of parental control and policies that would make it more real would improve the chances for our children to receive a genuine education.
Books on the topic of this essay can be found at The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore.