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April 1, 1996
Vol. 53
No. 7

Parents' Rights—Society's Imperatives: A Balancing Act

By articulating and responding to the principles that underlie parent vs. school rights controversies, public school officials can diffuse conflict and even arrive at a consensus on some issues.

Parents' rights and society's needs sometimes collide, with the battle often fought in public schools. Despite these conflicts, many school officials avoid acknowledging both the underlying issues and their antagonists' concerns. This is a mistake. Clearly defining the problem is a prerequisite to constructive school-community relationships.
Four recent events in the Denver area illustrate some of the many points of controversy.
For the fourth time in a week, Norman Kimbrough of suburban Denver received a phone call from officials at Elkhart Elementary School, informing him that his 8-year-old son, Anthony, was disrupting class yet again. On the first three occasions, Kimbrough had followed the behavior-remediating instructions of the public school experts, but to no avail. After the fourth call, Kimbrough did what he had told his son he would do: he showed up at school, took Anthony aside, and spanked him.
Anthony's behavior improved, but that was not the only result of Kimbrough's paternal intervention. Following allegations by school officials that they found welts on Anthony, his father was forced to stand trial on misdemeanor child abuse, assault, and harassment charges. Kimbrough was ultimately found guilty only of harassment, placed on supervised probation for one year, ordered to attend parenting classes, and forced to pay $58 in court costs.
"I'm just doing my job as a parent," Kimbrough said in his defense. According to the blanket media coverage, his family and friends—and many other Coloradans—fully supported him. They regarded the Kimbrough case as a graphic example of government interference in the domain of family privacy and parents' rights, instigated by intrusive and hyperprotective public school officials.
In a far more serious case, Allen Spenser was sentenced to life in prison for killing his 8-year-old son after beating him mercilessly with a two-by-four. A public outcry erupted over the fact that the father could not be convicted of first-degree murder because state statutes allowed for only a second-degree murder conviction in cases of deliberate and deadly child abuse.
In the Spenser case, outraged parents demanded to know why society did not intervene. In the Kimbrough case, irate parents demanded to know why society did intrude.
Parents' feelings also ran high at two other Denver area schools:
Parents at Martin Luther King Jr. Middle School, which had been pilloried in a 1992 Prime Time expose of public school discipline problems, staged a protest over a school dress code, implemented because school officials believed that academic achievement and student clothing styles are related.
Across town at Hulstrom Elementary School, parents expressed anger and frustration after officials apprised them of the presence of an HIV-positive child but refused to reveal the child's identity.
Meanwhile, at the Colorado statehouse, the state legislature passed a law last May, unique in the United States, authorizing juvenile judges to force parents to participate with their wayward children in community service, work-supervision programs, victim restitution, probation programs, or counseling. The legislature acted on the conviction that "bad parents and absent parents are, without a doubt, the worst problem facing this country," as the Rocky Mountain News put it. Society, in other words, has imperatives that supersede the rights of parents and families.
The Colorado Parental Rights Coalition, however, disagreed. Protesting what they saw as big brotherism, members circulated a petition to include a Parental Rights Amendment in the November 1996 ballot, an initiative similar to those sponsored by 28 other states. A spokeswoman declared that the amendment would spark debate "on who really raises children—government or the parent."

Conflicting Ideologies

Obviously the above events vary in their seriousness and implications. But all show that there are legitimate and unresolved differences of opinion on the extent to which parents' rights or society's imperatives should prevail in nurturing—and schooling—children. They show that we must come to grips with two deeply rooted and conflicting ideologies.
Many citizens sincerely believe that parents' rights are inviolable; that is, that the government has absolutely no right to dictate anything to parents, and that the school, therefore, has no right to impose any curriculum, content, or requirement that parents object to. Thus educators are often forced to walk a delicate tightrope in developing and explaining their policies, programs, teaching methods, and materials.
Other public school constituents vigorously disagree. They believe that, in order for the United States to survive economically, politically, and militarily, the government—that is, society—must demand that every citizen be required to learn certain basic content and be subjected to certain basic requirements. Hence parents' rights must be limited.
Those who embrace the former perspective have typically been public school antagonists, in a non-pejorative sense of the word. They have seen themselves as fighting the good fight on behalf of an unassailable principle. In many, if not most, school districts, educators stonewall these parents when they believe the occasion warrants it. But unless we respond adequately to their position, we will not be able to work constructively with them.

Rights and Responsibilities

In the interest of arriving at a consensus—or at least a common understanding, let's consider the issues on their merits.
Parents' rights advocates point out that, with rare exceptions, parents have a greater financial, emotional, temporal, and personal investment in—and a greater interest in—the progress of their own children than do teachers or administrators. Parents are vastly more likely to live with the successes and failures of their children—whether academic, relational, or financial—than are teachers or administrators. Parents also have a greater responsibility for and legal liability for their children. And they are more likely to incur financial liability or to accrue financial gain from their children.
On the other hand, it is society, and not parents, that pays for unwed mothers, absentee fathers, and unsocialized children. Yet parents' rights advocates argue that even so, parents still bear the larger burden of dysfunctional behavior, both as a part of the larger society in rendering general assistance, and as individuals, in rendering specific assistance—whether voluntary or coerced—to their dysfunctional relatives. In other words, they pay twice.
It follows then that parents must also have primary rights in selecting and shaping influences in the development of their children. He who pays the fiddler—even if payment is extorted—calls the tune. Parents should, therefore, be able to easily gain access to the public schools to present concerns and suggestions. And if there is a dispute over curricular content, process, or outcomes, parents' rights advocates argue, the desires of parents must supersede the desires of school personnel.

Proactive Problem Solving

If the parental rights/societal imperatives issue proceeds no further than its explicit recognition in school policy, a giant step will have been taken. Educators will have demonstrated that they are aware of the concerns of parents' rights advocates. Even if respective rights cannot be immediately agreed upon, school staff will at least have an explicit basis upon which to anticipate and resolve philosophical conflict in working with parents and the community.
Following are some suggestions for clearly articulating issues.
1. Address the facts in dispute. Demonstrate to parents' rights advocates that their arguments have been carefully and sincerely considered.
2. Develop guidelines for including parents in determining outcomes and in identifying avenues to attaining them. Often it is the perception of, not the fact of, disenfranchisement that provokes contention.
3. Adopt opt-in policies, requiring parental notification and permission for inclusion of students in potentially controversial lessons.
4. Involve parents in the drafting of policies regarding access to school premises and professional meetings, prohibiting access only when the school is legally bound to do so.
5. Consider guaranteeing that parents will have the opportunity to help determine criteria affecting their children's assessment, evaluation, promotion, and retention.
6. Take the pulse of the community on the practical ramifications of the parental rights/societal imperatives issue. To do this, we at the National Center for Community Consensus on Education have distributed worksheets to administrators and school board members in Ohio, Missouri, Colorado, and elsewhere to elicit their views and the views of parents and students in their schools.

Put It on Paper

The goal of a community worksheet to elicit the various stakeholders' points of view is to come up with a statement that balances parents' rights with the school's imperatives. Such a statement should very explicitly address possible sources of controversy in the school district. These have included virtually every aspect of education—library materials, textbooks, teaching methods, course content, grading policies, attendance policies, discipline, homework, extracurricular and intramural activities, class schedules, community service requirements, teacher-student conflict, parent-teacher conflict, and dispute resolution.
  1. What rights do parents have that the public schools have no business limiting or suspending?
  2. What needs (imperatives) of society overrule individual rights?
  3. How would you word a Parents' Rights/School's Rights policy on a topic like homework, teacher assignment, or another topic of interest in your district? For example: Parents in ________ School District have the right to have their child assigned to a teacher of their choice. All pupils and students in __________School District are required to__________.
There are obviously no easy answers to the parental rights/societal imperatives issue; no answers that will completely satisfy all the constituencies in a diverse public school district. A good start, however, is to articulate the underlying cause of the debate, and delineate at least some areas on which consensus can be reached. By taking these steps, we can make significant progress toward constructive working relationships with parents and families.

Arnold Burron has been a contributor to Educational Leadership.

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