Whose Child Is It Anyway?

Teachers Trust Their Judgment Over Parents About What’s Best for Children, but Courts Disagree
Note Thanun, Unsplash
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It is the rare teacher who does not refer to her class, by habit and dozens of times each day, as “my kids.” It’s rarer still for the remark to be challenged. The children we teach are our students, our scholars, or our class. They might be kids but they are not ours. They have parents or caregivers who will insist, quite rightly, that our students are their kids.  

The distinction is not mere pedantry. Perhaps your ed school experience was more robust and rigorous than mine, but I have no recollection of hearing until long after I left the classroom the famous phrase from the Supreme Court’s unanimous decision in Pierce v. Society of Sisters (1925) that “the child is not the mere creature of the state.” It probably should have come up early, perhaps even on day one. It might have cleared up a few things. Perhaps unwittingly, the state in the form of public-school teachers and administrators, seems determined lately to re-litigate issues that courts settled long ago. 

My training to become an elementary school teacher impressed upon me the need to be many things: A child advocate. A “change agent” committed to teaching for social justice. An empathetic and reflective practitioner focused on development of the “whole child.” But at no point was I reminded that I was a public employee with an enormous amount of influence over a captive audience of other people’s children. But decades of court rulings evince a clear view of what our role is (and what it is not). As I noted in an essay for Commentary last month, teachers’ lack of awareness of 100 years of jurisprudence may be contributing to conflicts and an increasingly unmistakable air of distrust between schools and parents.

Consider the tensions surfaced last week when Virginia released guidance to its schools insisting they must “keep parents fully informed about all matters” related to their children’s health and psychological development, and that schools may not “encourage or instruct teachers to conceal material information about a student from the student’s parent, including information related to gender.” It should have been uncontroversial for the state’s Department of Education to note its new guidance “fully acknowledges the rights of parents to exercise their fundamental rights granted by the Fourteenth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution to direct the care, upbringing, and education of their children.” But that’s not how it landed either among educators or the media. “This is unacceptable,” tweeted Jason Kamras, Richmond’s school superintendent. “Public schools should be welcoming and inclusive, not exclusionary. The very least we can give our students is dignity and respect. This action takes it away.” In the New York Times’ telling, Virginia is “reversing school protections for transgender students.” 

Protection from whom? Activists and educators who insist that transgender students are so uniquely at-risk that they need to be protected, even from their families, might be sobered to reflect on the precedent set by SCOTUS in Parham v. JR (1979), re-affirming parents’ right to make decisions for their children in matters of health, education, and family life. In that case, the Court considered precisely the concern that transgender rights’ advocates and educators invoke today: that parents might sometimes act contrary to a child’s interests, carelessly or even maliciously. The case involved children institutionalized by their parents in Georgia, at least one of whom spent several years in a state mental hospital over his objection, despite medical evidence suggesting he did not need to remain institutionalized. The plaintiffs argued that parents were using state mental hospitals as a “dumping ground” for unwanted children, and that minor children were insufficiently protected.  

The Court still sided with parents. “Our jurisprudence historically has reflected Western civilization concepts of the family as a unit with broad parental authority over minor children,” Chief Justice Warren Burger wrote for the 6-3 majority. “The statist notion that governmental power should supersede parental authority in all cases because some parents abuse and neglect children is repugnant to American tradition,” he concluded.

I’m not a lawyer, but it’s hard to imagine a more direct or emphatic rebuke to the notion that the judgment of schools and teachers should outweigh parents’ judgment about the best interests of a child. 

And what of the rare cases when a child is legitimately at-risk of harm from an abusive or intolerant parent or caregiver? Vernadette Broyles, a parental rights attorney, observes that the law already accounts for this. Teachers are mandated reporters required to report suspected instances of child abuse. “You’re not entitled to take it onto yourself as a teacher to make the judgment that somehow this parent does not share the right value system, or is going to correct or guide their child in a way that you don’t approve of,” Broyles told me. 

I have no illusions that the ideologically committed will be swayed by mere judicial rulings. And we should be grateful for teachers who are invested in their students and their well-being. But there is a danger for educators in assuming that their moral commitments to students, however deeply and earnestly felt, are a permission structure allowing them to exclude parents from critical decisions regarding a child’s health and safety. When these questions come before the courts, as they inevitably will, history and precedent appears to come down strongly – and not inappropriately – on giving parents the benefit of the doubt. The courts consistently recognize something we often fail to see: they’re not our kids.

Robert Pondiscio
Robert Pondiscio is a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI) and the author of many books, including “How the Other Half Learns: Equality, Excellence, and the Battle over School Choice.”

The views expressed in this article are the opinion of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the Chalkboard Review team.

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