"Freedom of education, being an essential of civil and religious liberty . . .
must not be interfered with under any pretext whatever," the party's national
platform declared. "We are opposed to state interference with parental rights
and rights of conscience in the education of children as an infringement of the
fundamental . . . doctrine that the largest individual liberty consistent with
the rights of others insures the highest type of American citizenship and the
Now which political party said that? The Libertarians? The Barry Goldwater
Republicans of 1964? Some minor party on the right-wing fringe?
Actually, that ringing endorsement of parental supremacy in education was
adopted by the Democratic National Convention in Chicago in 1892, which just
goes to show what was possible before the Democratic Party was taken hostage by
the teachers unions. (The same platform also warned that "the tendency to
centralize all power at the federal capital has become a menace," blasted
barriers to free trade as "robbery of the great majority of the American people
for the benefit of the few," and pledged "relentless opposition to the
Republican policy of profligate expenditure.")
Today, on education as on so much else, the Democrats sing from a different
hymnal. When the party's presidential candidates debated at Dartmouth College
recently, they were asked about a controversial incident in Lexington, Mass.,
where a second-grade teacher, to the dismay of several parents, had read her
young students a story celebrating same-sex marriage. Were the candidates
"comfortable" with that?
"Yes, absolutely," former senator John Edwards promptly replied. "I want my
children . . . to be exposed to all the information . . . even in second grade
. . . because I don't want to impose my view. Nobody made me G-d. I don't get
to decide on behalf of my family or my children. . . . I don't get to impose on
them what it is that I believe is right." None of the other candidates
disagreed, even though most of them say they oppose same-sex marriage.
Thus in a little over 100 years, the Democratic Party and, for that matter,
much of the Republican Party has been transformed from a champion of
"parental rights and rights of conscience in the education of children" to a
party whose leaders believe that parents "don't get to impose" their views and
values on what their kids are taught in school. Do American parents see
anything wrong with that? Apparently not: The overwhelming majority of them
dutifully enroll their children in government-operated schools, where the only
views and values permitted are the ones prescribed by the state.
But controversies like the one in Lexington are reminders that Big Brother's
ideas about what and how children should be taught are not always those of mom
Americans differ on same-sex marriage and evolution, on the importance of
sports and the value of phonics, on the right to bear arms and the reverence
due the Confederate flag. Some parents are committed secularists; others are
devout believers. Some place great emphasis on math and science; others stress
history and foreign languages. Americans hold disparate opinions on everything
from the truth of the Bible to the meaning of the First Amendment, from the
usefulness of rote memorization to the significance of music and art. With
parents so often in boisterous disagreement, why should children be locked into
a one-size-fits-all, government-knows-best model of education?
Nobody would want the government to run 90 percent of the nation's
entertainment industry. Nobody thinks that 90 percent of all housing should be
owned by the state. Nobody believes that health care would be improved if the
government operated 90 percent of all hospitals, pharmacies, and doctors'
offices. Yet the government's control of 90 percent of the nation's schools
leaves most Americans strangely unconcerned.
But we should be concerned. Not just because the quality of government
schooling is frequently so poor or its costs so high. Not just because public
schools are constantly roiled by political storms. Not just because schools
backed by the power of the state are not accountable to parents and can ride
roughshod over their concerns. And not just because the public-school monopoly,
like virtually all monopolies, resists change, innovation, and excellence.
All of that is true, but a more fundamental truth is this: In a society founded
on political and economic liberty, government schools should have no place.
Free men and women do not entrust to the state the molding of their children's
minds and character. As we wouldn't trust the state to feed our kids, or to
clothe them, or to get them to bed on time, neither should we trust the state
to teach them.
What Americans in an earlier era knew in their bones, many in the 21st century
need to relearn: Education is too important to be left to the government.