Education's third rail: parents
I once watched a movie about people trapped in a New York City subway tunnel, and above all, they knew to avoid the third rail. Electrically powered subways derive their power through contact with a high voltage rail (very deadly) located between the train tracks, and this is where we get the term “third-rail” in politics. Social security reform is a common example of something so politically electric that no one dare touch or talk about it. Education has a third rail, too, a hidden but powerful source of high voltage that ultimately powers our educational system. Yes, I am talking about parents, and high voltage parents are a serious political problem for many so-called education reformers.
Education trains run on two very visible rails: educators and students, and for over forty years we have placed more regulations and requirements on those two rails while simultaneously ignoring and marginalizing parents. High-stakes testing that determines who graduates, who moves up a grade, and who keeps their job have been ineffective because they all bypass the power and influence of parents. Instead of enlisting and uplifting parents, we have denigrated them for over a generation. Consequently, the educational train has been powered less and less by parents – and more by faraway power players.
Both sides, of course, quietly blame uninvolved parents as the problem, but that is not fair. I have served thousands of parents over the years, and most parents do their absolute best with the tools and knowledge they have, but their power has been gradually diverted over the years by time-wasting social engineers (from both political parties). That parental high voltage still remains, however, and it has lately been seeking an outlet.
Despite having all the power, local parents have less influence over their children’s education than faraway experts pushing wild agendas. Consequently, frustrated parents are faced with two bad choices: either blindly accept wild agendas or abandon the public school system entirely. Homeschooling is not practical for most, and few want their children in schools controlled by epic profiteers. Parents do not wish to choose between Marxism or crony capitalism.
Parents simply seek local, neighborhood schools that respect them as parents. Schools that do not push age-inappropriate issues or hidden agendas. Schools that welcome people of faith. Schools that value rigorous and relevant academics, and that staunchly defend equal rights and equal opportunities. Parents want kid-level solutions, not national politics. Unfortunately, after three years of a hyper-politicized pandemic, common-sense parents feel more helpless, frustrated, and marginalized than ever. I believe most educators feel this way, too. Maybe we should return to our power source.
Parents are the only solution at this point, but they should not be feared as the untouchable third rail. They should be elevated, encouraged, and affirmed as the most important educator, but our nation has marginalized parents so much that they have little power left. Most of our public schools still respect and honor parents, despite less and less local control. On a national scale, however, parents are frustrated. Teachers are demoralized. And as we enter yet another school year with unnecessary closures once again possible, children’s needs are often forgotten.
To protect people, subway systems eventually covered and insulated their third rails, but instead of lessening or diverting their power, it improved the system. Unfortunately, we have not only insulated our schools from parents but also diverted their power. Parents seek to channel their power back into schools lately, but they have not found it easy. Will all of this parental power dissipate . . . or will it empower school choice . . . or will it simply explode? Whatever happens, our nation can no longer ignore the power, influence, or responsibility of parents. They should not be feared or insulated; their high voltage must be channeled once again into our nation’s schools. Parents are not a problem; they are the solution to everything good we need in our schools and nation.
Tom Deighan is a career public educator and author of Shared Ideals in Public Schools. Read past articles at mostlyeducational.com and email him at email@example.com
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