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You Actually Do Co-Parent with the Government, So Make It Co-Parent Better


“Although pithy and pugnacious, the slogan is wrong. The moment parents drop a child off at the schoolhouse door, they entrust the school to take over some of their parenting responsibilities.”

“I do not co-parent with the government!” This t-shirt-friendly slogan has emerged in conservative circles as a rallying cry for parental rights. It is a strident way of voicing the conviction that parents—rather than the government—should have primary authority over children’s upbringing. Coined or popularized by the parental rights advocacy organization, Moms for Liberty, it has gained currency in recent years among parents who object to the critical social justice turn many public school systems have taken, especially with regard to policies and practices pertaining to race, ethnicity, gender, and sexuality.

Although pithy and pugnacious, the slogan is wrong. The moment parents drop a child off at the schoolhouse door, they entrust the school to take over some of their parenting responsibilities. Neither parents nor schools have a choice in the matter. The legal principle, in loco parentis—“in place of the parent”—obligates schools to assume certain parental duties pertaining to the child’s safety and well-being and empowers them to make certain decisions in executing that obligation.

But all the legal principle does is formalize the ontologically inescapable. Schooling is an extension of child-rearing. Schools exist to teach children the knowledge, skills, habits, mindsets, values, and virtues that will enable them to flourish as adults and live well with others. This inevitably involves judgments about what is worth knowing, which behaviors to encourage and discourage, and what norms to enforce on school grounds. Since these decisions involve value judgments, the schools cannot refrain from imparting values to students. All of this makes schools surrogate parents of a sort during school hours. They cannot not be. If one sends his child to a public school, he is, like it or not, “co-parenting” with the government.

In other words, “I do not co-parent with the government” posits as adversarial a relationship that ought to be considered a partnership. Once we recognize the legitimacy, necessity, and inevitability of this partnership between parents and public (read: government) schools, we can properly characterize recent clashes over parents’ rights as a symptom of a breakdown in that partnership. And once we recognize that, we can think more productively about how to repair it.

The partnership has always been fraught, for several reasons. Most basic is that parents typically care primarily about their own children, whereas teachers are concerned for everyone’s. So, any parent’s request, whether to have their child assigned to a certain teacher or receive a special service, has to be weighed against the rights and needs of other children in the school. When the decision does not go the parent’s way, it rankles.

Different parents also want their school to prioritize different things, forcing schools to adjudicate among them. Parents of children in a high school’s fine arts program naturally want to see more of their school’s limited resources invested in the school theater, whereas parents of athletes want the school to prioritize upgrades to the field house. The situation gets even more fraught where conflicting priorities are entangled with issues of race or class, as when a school needs to decide whether to invest more in remedial programs that disproportionately help more black, brown, and poor students or to offer more advanced and honors courses that disproportionately benefit white, Asian, and affluent ones.

Least obvious, but crucial, is that when there is a conflict both sides feel like the aggrieved party. Parents can feel dehumanized by school bureaucracies and condescended to by teachers wielding arcane educational argot (so-called “educationese”) to deflect their concerns. Teachers and school administrators feel overworked, underappreciated, and disrespected. Their recourse to educationese in the face of parents who question their judgment betrays a status anxiety born of the gap between their self-understanding as professionals who merit deference and a society that refuses to grant it.

Which brings us to the source of tension that fuels the most intense skirmishes: the ideological. For the last century or more the education profession writ large has tended to align itself with movements and trends deemed progressive, be it in curriculum, instruction, policy, or politics. Over that same period more conservative parents have been, well, more conservative. And so over the decades educators and dissenting parents have waged battles over issues such as the teaching of Darwinian evolutionary theory, school-sponsored prayer, methods for teaching math and reading, the proper scope and content of history and literature courses, school discipline, sex education, and controversial school library books, to name a few of the more prominent, protracted, and perennial. Sometimes the educators have been in the right (evolution, school prayer), sometimes the parents (reading), sometimes it is complicated (history, discipline, sex education).

I mostly side with the parents regarding the present breakdown. While all four sources of conflict I mentioned are in play, the dominant is by far ideological. Parents and the public expect public schools to forge a shared civic identity out of a diverse student body, and to prepare students to contribute productively to society and the economy. It is why we tax ourselves to support them—to serve, not subvert, those expectations. But in recent years adherents of critical social justice ideologies have colonized school systems to a degree I never thought possible. Some states are adopting curricular frameworks that stoke ethnoracial chauvinism and teach a stark worldview that reduces complex historical and social phenomena to a zero-sum dynamic of power versus oppression. They openly aim to train children to resist and “liberate” themselves from mainstream society rather than prepare them to thrive in it. Schools are teaching children as young as eight avant garde theories of gender and sexuality. School districts are adopting policies that instruct school officials to withhold from parents certain vital information about their children’s psychological well-being on the presumption that the school must protect children from their parents. The arrogance and contempt are breathtaking.

So, I understand why conservative parents are outraged. The problem, unfortunately, is that conservative parents are always outraged. Their reflexive hostility to government is well-known and well-worn. From the perspective of the critical social justice ideologues, their protestations are same ole, same ole—if anything, evidence that they must be doing something right because they are pissing off the right people. The solutions these parents instinctively reach for—usually censorship in one form or another—play right into their hands. The educators stand for truth and openness, the parents for suppression. They are under attack by an angry mob—they, the hardworking public servants serving the cause of justice. Such solutions are self-defeating.

But others show more promise. Two conservative proposals in particular could help repair the co-parenting arrangement. Curriculum transparency strikes me as commonsensical. Why it is not routine practice is a puzzle to me. The public has a reasonable expectation to know what kind of learning their tax dollars are supporting, and parents are entitled to know what is being taught to their children. It is also sound co-parenting practice, a way to ensure both partners are on the same page. And builds trust, a prerequisite for any productive partnership. So-called viewpoint diversity is another sound principle espoused by conservative parents and their advocates. This is the opposite of censorship or bans. Viewpoint diversity requires more books, not fewer; more scholarly methods for interpreting history rather than a single reductive one; more space for civil dialogue among stakeholders espousing reasonable but conflicting points of view. This too can be advocated in a spirit of cooperation. Critical social justice adherents are always talking about the importance of “multiple perspectives.” Challenge them to live up to it. To do this, of course, public school leaders need to live up to their espoused commitment to community voice and involvement. They may need help living up to that too, with reminders that their communities are pluralistic and that excluding some members based on race or inconvenient perspectives betrays that commitment. Petulantly chanting, “I don’t co-parent with the government!” serves only to justify the exclusion.

None of this precludes tough love in the form of, say, electing school board candidates who will advocate for disaffected parents, or voting down school levy requests in districts whose leadership ignores constituents’ concerns. Nor does it foreclose divorce, pulling one’s children out of the public schools or advocating for school voucher laws. But the former is expensive, and the latter has proven a tough sell in most states, recent successes notwithstanding. (And besides, many private and parochial schools are just as radicalized and recalcitrant.) Reconciliation remains the best option for most parents seeking a sound, supportive education for their children.

I do not mean to sound like a Pollyanna. The people responsible for the radical turn have been groomed to think of themselves as part of a social reconstructionist vanguard. They have been taught to harbor disdain for bourgeois (read: white, white-adjacent) parents and their putatively oppressive Western colonialist prejudices. It can make them self-righteous and intransigent. But, by all accounts, they are the minority, albeit a large and powerful one. Among them are educators just like most people, normies who want to teach kids how to read, do math, learn some history and science, express themselves creatively, become good neighbors and citizens, and grow into the best possible versions of themselves. They are the ones we need to appeal to and embolden. Rather than besmirch them as Marxists or alienate them with knee-jerk anti-government bluster, we would do well to admit that they are our co-parents. We need them. They need us. We need to work together.

This is not a mere more flies with honey strategy either. It is recognizing a simple, immutable reality about the relationship between schools and parents, and proceeding accordingly. Where there is common ground, claim it. Where there is not, compromise. Recall too that schools co-parent with all their students’ parents, not just yours. In a democratic republic, “the government” represents the people. The more diverse and pluralistic, the more difficult it is to represent everyone. The radical turn in K-12 education did not emerge solely from within the profession but also from organized pressure outside it—advocacy organizations, activists, and other parents. They too are a minority, vocal and powerful. If we want sanity restored to public schools, educators need to hear more sane, moderate voices. And if we want them to better represent the rest of us, the first step is to acknowledge that they do represent us. In loco parentis.

Dave Ferrero is an educator whose career has spanned philanthropy, research, advocacy, urban school reform, and classroom teaching. He is currently an independent consultant working with secondary schools and non-governmental organizations focused on education. 

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