Parents Know Best How to Fix Schools

Published August 31, 2011

As moms and dads across America enter the education reform arena by the thousands through parent unions, capitol demonstrations, and expanded school-choice measures, some defenders of the current system have piped up against “parent power.”

Take Jay Mathews of the Washington Post. He recently excused the American Federation of Teachers’ efforts to block Parent Trigger legislation in Connecticut to allow a majority of parents at a failing school to make the school district do something about the problem.

“Many parents, particularly loudmouths like me, think we know exactly how to fix our schools. In most cases we don’t,” he wrote. Instead, he recommends parents let experts and “imaginative educators” figure things out for us.

In a Reuters op-ed, author Peg Tyre similarly worries that newly empowered parents “don’t have a clue what they are doing” when selecting education for their children.

She points out, correctly, that expanding school choice means a lot to learn for many parents who previously had no choice but to send their children to (often horrible) schools assigned by ZIP code. Yes, some parents may find the new options confusing.

Initial confusion, however, is no reason to avoid — or to let government purloin — an exciting and important responsibility. If it were, none of us would ever have children in the first place.

Parenthood, after all, means absolute greenhorns have an entire human being (or several human beings) to raise to maturity, with no previous practice or qualifications and very little preparation.

Certainly, no expert or researcher would design such a risky system, but it has been pushing civilization along at an extremely rapid pace since, well, human beings have existed.

Experts such as Matthews and Tyre have a variety of reasons for the positions they take, and teachers and administrators have varied motivations for remaining in their present positions.

Parents, by contrast, universally maintain a single motivation: their concern for their children. The same visceral concern that prompts Mommy to rise yet again for a squalling baby at 3 a.m. and pumps Dad’s adrenaline when he races to lift his spluttering son out of the pool also incites parents to (rightly) demand teachers’ heads when they find out Johnny can’t read, write or calculate.

It’s a positive motivation that’s largely blunted in a nation where 90 percent of kids are stuck in a school assigned by geography and government fiat.

Just as parents have for decades found their way around the system by spending extra money to live in districts with what they perceive to be better schools and asking principals to place their child with the better fifth-grade teacher, so, too, can and will their deep motivation inspire them to seek the best possible education in a system of real choice. They will do this for the same reasons they do everything else for their children.

Tyre may not notice, but she’s one reason more freedom for parents will be successful: She has written a book teaching parents how to decide wisely among their expanding school choices.

As more and more parents search for these answers, their very need will create the necessary supply of information and advice. It’s the same, simple system we all depend on to put milk on supermarket shelves and provide us gas on unknown roads: the consumer-empowering nature of the market.

The best education system puts children first. No one places children first more naturally and effectively than their parents. Freeing parents to do what they know and accomplish best will only strengthen American education.

Joy Pullmann is a research fellow in education and managing editor of School Reform News at The Heartland Institute.