Discover more from Contrarian's Notebook, by Dan Rottenberg
Vol. 37: Parents vs. teachers
Why I fell off the school voucher bandwagon
“Make me God for a day,” a conservative friend e-mailed me recently, “and I will fix the real problems which manifest themselves almost exclusively in the inner cities where we have kids, largely black, graduating high school who cannot read above the third-grade level. First step: Get rid of the teachers' unions. Second, welcome into the inner-city charter schools, vouchers, and parochial/other private schools and watch the positive results that happen, as they have where they have been allowed. But most of the Demo Party opposes ALL of this. WHY?? Because it is in bed with the teachers' unions.”
My friend is hardly alone these days. “As a father,” says the would-be Republican presidential candidate Ron DeSantis, “I’m having to watch the radical Left shove a political agenda down parents' and kids' throats at every turn. They’re having to face lies that men can get pregnant and that we should embrace feelings of hate and guilt instead of pride in our country.” Moms For Liberty, an organization founded two years ago, is working to ban certain books in schools, curtail school discussions about race and LGBTQ issues, fight school Covid safety measures, and elect conservatives to local school boards.
These concerns strike me as largely bogus, driven not by parents but by culture warriors. Some 90% of American students attend traditional public schools, and as recently as late last year 80% of U.S. parents told a Gallup poll that they were somewhat or completely satisfied with their children’s education. But among American adults in general— only a fraction of whom have school-age children— a mere 42% said they were satisfied with America’s schools, the lowest figure in 20 years. In other words, the people most dissatisfied with America’s schools don’t have kids in school.
In any case, paranoia about schools and teachers isn’t limited exclusively to conservatives. When a generation of anti-Vietnam war protesters began having kids in the ’70s, those former hippies were just as wary of public schools as conservatives are today. The result was a wave of parent-run “co-op” schools and home-schooling alternatives.
So to my mind, the relevant question is not “Why do conservatives resent teachers?” It’s “Why do parents resent teachers?”
The answer probably has less to do with teachers or political rhetoric than with Freudian stuff. You know: The subconscious fear of losing control as one’s kids grow up, leave home, and form other attachments— the natural journey from womb to tomb. But I’ve lately concluded that there’s a more basic reason for whatever gulf exists between parents and teachers. Please read on.
A 19th Century solution
I write as a journalist who has followed “parent power” movements since the ‘60s. When the conservative economist Milton Friedman first called for governments to get out of the education business and instead give parents vouchers to spend at any public or private school that met “minimum standards,” I was intrigued, at least initially.
Friedman’s voucher scheme, I wrote in 1973, “would force the public schools to compete with other schools on a quality basis. It would enable dissident teachers and families to set up their own schools… It would encourage a wide diversity of schools…. Most important, the voucher plan would give parents much more control over their children’s schooling… It might even lure some suburban parents back into the city.”
My logic seemed impeccable. America’s public school systems, I reasoned, had been created in the 19th Century, when fewer than 1% of American adults were college graduates and most parents had no formal schooling past the eighth grade. Those parents— not to mention all those greenhorn immigrants who didn’t even speak English— were grateful to turn their kids over to a professional education bureaucracy. But more than a century later, when 44% of adult Americans hold college degrees, many parents may well be more worldly and sophisticated than their local school superintendent or school board members.
So, yes, parents today may be much better educated than they were a century ago. But they still often make bad choices about education, albeit for very different reasons.
Conflict of interest
For example: In 1990, I discovered that one in every four U.S. schoolchildren lived in a household where adults were abusing drugs or alcohol, which suggests that they were probably incapable of making rational decisions. That same year, Philadelphia’s Health Department estimated that more than 5,000 babies were born in the city to cocaine abusers— mothers who, within five years, would likely be School District parents. Around the same time, the Philadelphia School District identified nearly 1,000 students in the system who were already parents themselves. Since all but five of those identified were girls, the actual figure was probably much higher. Again, these students became School District parents just a few years later.
These revelations seemed to splash cold water on the notion that “parent power”— exercised through vouchers in a rational education “marketplace”— would improve education.
But these scary statistics are really beside the point. Vouchers or no vouchers, drugs or no drugs, there’s an inherent conflict of interest between parenting and teaching. Good parents and good teachers alike instinctively understand that what kids get from their parents, they can’t get from their teachers, and vice versa.
Itzhak Perlman may be one of the world’s great violinists; but he and his violinist wife Toby sent their daughter Navah elsewhere to study piano. My own piano-teacher wife, likewise, is (in my admittedly biased view) a wonderful teacher for small children— but not, as she understood, for our children: For their piano lessons, she sent them elsewhere.
Years ago, as I was agonizing about where to send my eighth-grade daughter to high school, I asked an old friend— the headmaster of a respected Eastern prep school— for his advice.
“I could lose my job for telling you this,” he replied. “But for parents like you and me, it doesn’t make a damn bit of difference where our children go to school. If they come from stable and supportive homes, where there’s material security and a love of learning, they’ll do fine and get into good colleges, no matter what high school they attend.”
Consider my late sister-in-law, Carol Newman of Charlotte, N.C. In the ’90s Carol and her husband, both holders of doctoral degrees, entrusted their two white daughters to West Charlotte High School, which was then 90% Black. One daughter went on to Haverford College and now practices law in Washington, D.C. The other daughter graduated from Penn, spent 15 years in TV production, then earned a master’s degree from one of the nation’s most demanding public health programs (at the University of North Carolina), and ultimately tied all the pieces of her career together to launch a creative health communication agency aimed at changing unhealthy behaviors, such as youth vaping and opioid abuse. West Charlotte High School, she says now, was “an incredibly positive experience, where I learned more about the world than any textbook could have taught me.”
Liberal school, conservative parents
Or consider my own parents, who in the Eisenhower ’50s entrusted my brother and me to the clutches of the Fieldston School, operated by the atheistic New York Society for Ethical Culture. In the midst of that conformist decade, Fieldston encouraged us to question authority (even to disagree with our teachers) and exposed us to such then-radical concepts as coeducation, racial integration, casual dress codes, ethics classes, and “learning by doing” in a student kitchen, a woodworking shop, and a print shop.
My classmates’ more conservative parents, for the most part, bit their lips and let our teachers do their thing without parental interference. We got no inkling of their qualms about Fieldston until the night before we graduated, when they put on a parents’ show that included this ditty (sung to the tune of Frank Sinatra’s Love and Marriage):
School you entered
Was the greatest gift that man invented!
Bottom line for parents: Invest your energies in parenting. Choose your children’s schools carefully— just as you would choose your doctors— and then trust them to practice their professions better than you ever could.
Bottom line for kids: Choose your parents carefully.
Bottom line for me: Just when everyone else seems to be climbing aboard the school voucher bandwagon, I’m trying to jump off the damned thing.
“Every parent of every color, creed, and background,” insists Tina Descovich, co-founder of Moms For Liberty, “has the right to direct the upbringing of their children.” Well, sure. You also have the right to burn down your home. But why would you want to?
The good news for Tina Descovich: Kids who rebel against their parents are likely to rebel against their teachers as well. That’s part of the natural process of learning to think independently. If you don’t want your kids to think independently… well, maybe that’s the crux of your problem, not to mention America’s.
Oh, one other point: Should my conservative friend ever realize his dream of becoming God for one day, burn this column.
To browse the complete archive of Dan’s past columns:
Enjoy Dan Rottenberg’s new memoir, The Education of a Journalist: My Seventy Years on the Frontiers of Free Speech. You can also visit his website at www.danrottenberg.com
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