COLUMN: The Writing on the Wall

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Nobody could accuse me of being a lackey for public education. Not only did Sally and I home school our six children, K-12, but professionally I have pushed for parental rights, local control and self-reliance in education throughout Utah. I supported school vouchers and tax credits before that. I’m infamous for authoring a lengthy essay titled Saving Education & Ourselves: The Moral Case for Self-Reliance in Education.

In that essay I wrote, “government schooling does indeed have a proper role in society, but it is a limited and welfare role,” and I concluded the essay with the following recommendations:

  • All education policy must recognize that family is the fundamental unit of society and parents must assume full and direct responsibility for the education of their children.
  • Dramatically amend compulsory attendance laws to apply to children only in government schools.
  • Restructure state school financing.
  • Convert all government K-12 schools into autonomous neighborhood schools.
  • Reformulate the jurisdiction and duties of the State Board of Education.
  • Restructure and limit the relevant functions of the State Office of Education.
  • Decline federal funds for education.
  • Create an independent commission to detail and implement this new approach.

For my trouble, one Utah newspaper printed its cover with me in a tank crushing little kids as they scream and run from the assault on their public school. So, no, nobody could accuse me of being a shill for public education in Utah.

But I, along with many other conservative advocates for educational excellence, missed the real point entirely: Our ideal system of education isn’t even close to reality. Furthermore, our refusal to accept reality will continue to lead to needless social and political divisions in the state. Though home schooling has grown dramatically since 1988 when Sally and I started with our children, relatively few parents think about it, let alone do it. A predominant number of families either lack one parent or are handicapped by divorce. Even though technological advances scream at parents to home school today, there simply is no will to do so. We, conservatives, need to accept this reality.

We need to accept the reality that home schooling, private schools and charter schools exist in Utah not because the state Legislature and public education community see their benefits and accept them equally, but because education politics requires that pressure be let out of the cooker every once in a while. It’s much easier for public education to put educational alternatives into their own little ghettos than it is to assimilate and mainstream them.

With the existence of home, private and charter schools, conservatives have provided a framework for educational excellence. But if we stop there, a lot of children will continue to languish educationally. Conservatives need to play a key role in lifting up our most struggling students and schools. It is our moral responsibility to save these kids when we see them drowning. But to do so we have to change how we think.

Rather than lecturing society about the benefits of two-parent families, we need to accept the reality that most struggling kids come from single-parent households. Rather than holding fast to our ideals about parental rights, we need to accept the reality that many parents are the problem or that many parents don’t have the resources to become the solution. The writing is on the wall. Yes, every prediction conservatives made about the dire consequences resulting from collapse of family structure has come true. But now it’s our public responsibility to set aside the “I told you so’s,” roll up our sleeves, and save the children suffering those consequences.

It’s time for conservatives to do what we’ve been most reluctant to do – intervene in these families and save these children. If we help the parents in the process, so be it. But, just as with intergenerational poverty, intervention is the only thing that will work. So it’s time for conservatives to think anew, to innovate, to break the cycles of ignorance and poverty.