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Answer Sheet: Parents Know Best — Except When They Don't

Parents know what’s right for their kids, right? Here’s a piece that argues something else: not always, not in every facet of life.

The latest chapter of a decades-long “parental rights” movement is having a moment, with some Republican governors having made it a rallying cry around mask mandates and other issues during the coronavirus pandemic and now about what teachers can introduce about race and gender in classrooms.

To be sure, parents and guardians will always be their children’s most important educators. Research is clear that what young people learn about values, belief systems, behavior and a lot more from their homes has far more impact than what they learn in school.

But the idea that parents know exactly what students need to know and learn in school doesn’t follow. Most parents don’t assume they can treat their child’s medical condition better than a doctor. Teachers are professionals too and have an expertise parents don’t have. As I wrote in 2021, imagine a classroom with 25 students and the parents of each one trying to dictate to a teacher if and how to lead a lesson about the Rev. Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream Speech.” It’s unworkable.

In this post, Kevin Welner, co-founder and director of the National Education Policy Center at the University of Colorado at Boulder’s School of Education, looks at the issue of parental rights and how it factors into the school voucher movement.

Welner, whose research focuses on policy and law, has authored or edited nearly 20 books and more than 100 research articles and book chapters concerning education policy and law. His newest book, “The School Voucher Illusion: Exposing the Pretense of Equity,” will be published in April. Earlier books include “School’s Choice: How Charter Schools Control Access and Shape Enrollment (co-authored with Wagma Mommandi), and “Closing the Opportunity Gap: What America Must Do to Give Every Child an Even Chance” (co-edited with Prudence Carter).


By Kevin Welner

The news recently broke of an online neo-Nazi home-schooling network called “Dissident Homeschool.” The group is easily mocked as an example of abusive parenting and of home schooling gone wrong. But it’s when combined with another set of recent news stories that we should be worried.

While these racist home-schoolers have been colluding, a separate group of state legislators and governors have been hard at work changing their state laws to divert taxpayer dollars — with no strings attached and no meaningful regulations — toward voucher programs that include these home-schoolers.

Those pushing these policies use slogans like “fund children, not schools,” as a justification for moving public money from public schools and toward whichever education-related expenses parents choose. This, they claim, will improve education.

But the truth is disturbingly different, as inadvertently disclosed by the head of a Utah school choice lobbying group who was recently caught on a recording explaining, “I want to destroy public education.” The disclosure didn’t matter; her group successfully advocated for a Utah bill creating one of these new universal voucher programs.

The all-embracing voucher laws generally give parents debit cards linked to bank accounts funded by the taxpayer dollars. In Utah, these are called “scholarship accounts.” Iowa’s new law calls them “education savings accounts.” Arizona’s law calls them, “Empowerment Scholarship Accounts.” West Virginia opted for the name, “Hope Scholarships.”

By whatever name, the laws are premised on a particular version of the parent-empowerment argument — that “parents know best what their children need.” The same idea pops up wherever vouchers are expanded, from Utah to Florida to Iowa. As recently repeated by former president Donald Trump: “More than anyone else, parents know what their children need.”

Yet that simplistic chestnut is hard to square with the “Dissident Homeschool” parents who want to turn their children into “Wonderful Nazis” and whose virulently racist teachings are now almost certainly being funded in some states with taxpayer dollars.

Further, while we should assume that parents who are Nazis or even Nazi-curious make up a relatively small slice of America, we also must recognize that racial segregation remains pervasive and continues to divide our society. Research on school choice and how parents make choices suggests that increased segregation is a feature, not a bug. Parents often look to school demographics and opt for schools with more of their “own group.”

Other voucher research is even more damning. Recent high-quality studies have consistently shown private-school vouchers to be devastatingly harmful for students’ academic progress. For children who used vouchers to leave public schools in Ohio and Louisiana, the damage to their math scores was the same or greater than the extraordinary damage to scores inflicted by the coronavirus pandemic.

Since advocates of school choice policies cannot claim academic benefits, they have increasingly turned to the parental-empowerment argument, with politicians offering up the applause line about parents knowing what’s best for their own children. While none of us are particularly comfortable saying, “I don’t trust parents,” let’s keep in mind that parents are just people — the same people who various Americans don’t trust to make decisions about issues such as vaccines, abortion, gun ownership, marriage, voting, and drug use.

Voucher policies can, of course, be designed in ways that attach accountability to taxpayer dollars. That’s the approach taken throughout many countries of Western Europe. The ultimate recipients of voucher funding, whether they be private schools or home-schoolers, can be required to be transparent and responsible in their use of public money and in their decisions about how the children in their care are being educated. That regulated approach, however, is anathema to the free-market advocates behind the national push for vouchers.

The uncomfortable truth is that past rhetoric from voucher advocates about providing helpful choices for marginalized families was, for many of these advocates, just a cynical way to get a foot in the door. As my colleagues and I explain in our upcoming new book, “The School Voucher Illusion: Exposing the Pretense of Equity,” their real goal has always been universal vouchers.

Politicians are justifiably reluctant to sell such universal, unregulated vouchers as a way to help balance the household budgets of neo-Nazis. But if that is not their goal, perhaps they should revisit how they wrote their laws.

Parents know best. Except when they don’t.

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The views expressed by the blogger are not necessarily those of NEPC.

Valerie Strauss

Valerie Strauss is the Washington Post education writer.

Kevin G. Welner

Professor Kevin Welner teaches educational policy and law at the CU Boulder School of Education. He’s also the director of the National Education Policy Center, w...