Secular Activists Cannot Allow Religious Parents to Steer Public Schools

children learning in school

Parents ought to have a voice in the education of their children. After all, parents are (or at least ought to be) sufficiently invested in their children as to care about what they are learning in school. And yet, having a voice does not mean being the sole or even a primary decision-maker, especially if we are talking about public education. In the context of public education, I believe the that educators (i.e., the teachers hired by the school) should be the primary decision-makers. They should listen to the parents and take the parents' wishes into consideration, but the decision of what to teach and how to teach it should ultimately be theirs. After all, public education is not about catering to parents, some of whom are dangerously misinformed, but about preparing all children to function as contributing members of our society.

I think this is a controversial position for at least two reasons. First, many people do not seem to understand that the mission of public education is to serve the public good and not anyone's individual interests. Many parents do understand this, but those who do not tend to cause significant problems. Second, far too many religious parents view education as a threat to their desire to indoctrinate their children into their preferred religion or to maintain control over whatever religious beliefs might afflict their children. Because of this second reason, it seems to me that public education is one of the primary domains where secularism and secular activism are needed. It is not just the future of these children we need to worry about; it is how they will impact the rest of us.

Public school teachers are notoriously underpaid and under-appreciated. Far too many parents view them as providing little more than free daycare, and this is a shame. It means that they need our support, especially in cases where they come under attack from religious parents or other religious groups seeking to dictate what children are taught. And yes, I think it is fair in this context to broaden "religion" and "religious" to include certain near-religious political ideologies and conspiracy theories. It is in our collective interest to make sure that children attending public school are receiving a reality-based education that is relatively free from nonsense.

What About Local Control?

Ah yes, local control. It is high time to rethink the merits of local control. This system (where public schools are controlled at the local level instead of the state or federal level) is in place largely to make it easier for parents to meddle. It might have once been defensible back in the days when it would have been unusual for a child to grow up and leave the town in which they had attended school. This has not been the case for some time. We now find ourselves in an odd situation where a child who attended school in some parts of Mississippi, for example, would be grossly underprepared to function in many other parts of the country. This is unacceptable. I don't mean to suggest that local control is the only relevant factor here, but it is one of them.

Remember, public education is about promoting the public good. It aims to do that by making sure that every child has the basic skills to contribute to society. Although I can imagine some scenarios where public school curriculum ought to differ to reflect wildly different local demands (e.g., children in New York City learning to navigate the subway vs. children in Nebraska learning about agriculture), this should be the exception rather than the norm. And where it really is necessary for education to reflect these kind of differences, it should be done in a limited manner.

I remember spending countless hours learning state-specific history and studying a state map to memorize the names of the counties. I haven't lived in that state since I turned 18. If I were to return (which I hope I might someday be able to afford), it is hard to imagine that I'd remember any of it. Perhaps the time allocated to those lessons could have been spent on something more portable. Personally, I'd have found a bit of financial literacy far more useful than memorizing counties.

Here in Mississippi, we hear a lot about "brain drain." Children finish school and leave the state as fast as they can. Why? Well, it is a fairly awful place to live, but the main factor seems to be the lack of jobs suitable for anyone with more than a basic education. Almost everyone seems to recognize that this is a problem, but none of the proposed solutions have included proposals to replace the state and local history with something that might be more helpful to those leaving (as well as those staying).

Religious Parents Have Other Options

Secularists should draw a hard line that religion does not belong in public schools and not feel bad about doing so. Religious parents have other options. If they are desperate to exert complete control over everything their children learn, they can cut off their Internet access and homeschool. If they are willing to relinquish some control but still demand a thoroughly religious education, they can pay for private religious schools. They have these options; degrading the quality of public education for everyone else should not be among them. And no, neither should siphoning funds away from public education to support religious education.

With everything else public school teachers (and administrators) have to deal with, I'm not sure it is reasonable to expect them all to fight all of these battles too. This is where secular activists can and do play an important role. At the very least, we can all make sure that our local school boards learn that there is some opposition to much of what the religious parents are demanding. We have not been willing to organize in the way that the religious special interests have, and that will need to change if we want to be effective here.

I think that many of us have been too tentative, too meek, or maybe just too understanding when it comes to efforts by religious parents to steer public education. Not only do they have other options, but so much of what they want taught has no basis in reality. And of course, much of what they don't want taught not only has a basis in reality but might actually be good for developing children and the rest of us.