Amidst the national debate and struggle over how to fix public education, raise average test scores, restore national competitiveness and ensure better-than-burger-flippin’ employability, most of the analysis and arguments tend to center on institutional accountability and competence. And what could be more elemental to bad schools than bad teachers, bad curriculum and bad administration? Could it ever be . . . bad parents?
Of course, my question is rhetorical and provocative.
Let me be clear: As a parent and a teacher, I know that raising kids is not for the faint of heart. The daily routines and resources necessary to support a child’s well-being and growth require tremendous personal effort and sacrifice. The very luckiest of us will have the help and support of an extended network of family and friends to see us through the parenting journey, and to see our children through to a healthy and engaged adulthood. But not everyone is lucky. And some are less than unlucky: some parents are completely alone. For parents among us who are a village of one, the pressures can be overwhelming. Read Puccinelli on parents and schools.
Is it possible for us — as a community, as a “village,” as a collective entity — to help shoulder responsibility for all kids? To parent them in ways that resemble collective responsibility for positive outcomes? For example, by instituting free, high-quality pre-schools? Or free, high-quality school meals? Or free, high-quality afterschool programs and sports programs and enrichment (e.g., music, dance, theater) programs?
Many might argue that the choice to bear children is personal and private, so why should individuals worry about or work toward the well-being of kids that aren’t theirs? Is the health and happiness of a kid, any kid, a stranger’s kid, something that the community should invest in?
Of course, my question is political.
The material costs of raising a child are mind-boggling. The USDA’s 2014 report on the cost of raising a child pegs expenses slightly north of $245,000 for food, housing, childcare and education up to the age of 18. It’s obvious that many parents are sweating footing the bill, and not just undereducated and poor parents — almost always hard-working and badly paid — but also well-educated and middle-income parents who are burdened by excessive debt. Sometimes parents are bad — abusive, neglectful, even cruel. But more often they are tired stressed, overworked, underpaid, struggling, discouraged. Whether we like it or not, or whether we acknowledge it or not, parents are the first and most important educators of their children. How can we acknowledge that?
Of course, my question isn’t personal.
Conservatives and liberals both suffer from the myopia of their own myths when it comes to individual responsibility and achievement. The former want us to believe that everyone, regardless of circumstance, should pull themselves up by their bootstraps. The latter would have us accept that the harshness and degradation of some circumstances render personal responsibility moot.
I’d like us to meet somewhere in the middle, a place where we can agree that limiting suffering, ignorance and dependency is good for the long-term viability of our society. “Bad parents” aren’t nearly the threat that weak institutions are, nor are “good parents” immune to the long-term impact of bad policies on society. As American society continues to debate the role and rationale of public schools, one thing is certain: public institutions will never replace or transcend the family. However, until and unless they go away, America’s public schools will remain the sole, tax-funded institution that partners with parents — all parents — in the education of America’s children.
We could do a much better job of that if we could reimagine and re-address the realities of the partnership.
The views and opinions expressed here are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of Boise State University, the Center for Idaho History and Politics, or the School of Public Service.