Parents and schools are fighting for control of the nation’s children. Who gets custody of the kids?

Relations between parents and schools look increasingly like a divorcing couple preparing for a custody battle.  

In the best of times, parents and schools have viewed each other as teammates with a shared goal of raising the next generation to be well-informed, upstanding citizens. But these are not the best of times. And if parents and public schools cannot agree, who gets primary custody of the children?

To answer that question, we need to explore this nation’s history – and the people who predicted a growing rift between parents and government education almost two centuries ago.

Historical context

The feud between parents and the public education establishment is far from new. 

As far back as 1840, a Massachusetts legislative committee predicted “disastrous” results if the government attempted to usurp parental roles by expanding its reach through a centralized education system. 

“The right to mould the political, moral, and religious opinions of his children is a right exclusively and jealously reserved by our laws to every parent,” the committee wrote in its report. 

“For the government to attempt, directly or indirectly, as to these matters, to stand in the parent’s place, is an undertaking of very questionable policy.” 

For these mid-19th century American parents, government education was new. Long before the “one-room schoolhouse,” modern readers may remember, education was largely done in the home.  

The vast majority of children in the 1600s to 1700s “were mainly home educated, and this included both instruction in reading, writing, and arithmetic and faith, morals, and interpersonal relationships or social skills,” according to historians of American education. 

The push for “common school” changed the educational landscape during the 19th century, however, under the influence of education idealists such as Horace Mann, sometimes described as the “Father of American Education.” 

“Mann’s commitment to the Common School sprang from his belief that political stability and social harmony depended on education: a basic level of literacy and the inculcation of common public ideals,” reads an article from PBS about Mann.  

‘One grand central head’

Mann had his detractors, however, who voiced concerns that his ideal of centralized education could threaten the very fabric of republican democracy. 

Opponents also pointed out that basic levels of literacy and common public ideals already existed without the government’s enforcement. In fact, Massachusetts had an estimated 98% literacy rate before compulsory education was introduced, and it has unfortunately never enjoyed that level of literacy again. 

“District schools, in a republican government, need no police regulations, no system of state censorship, no checks of moral, religious, or political conservatism, to preserve either the morals, the religion, or the politics of the state,” the legislative committee argued. 

“Instead of consolidating the education interest of the Commonwealth in one grand central head, and that head the government, let us rather hold on to the good old principles of our ancestors, and diffuse and scatter this interest far and wide, divided and subdivided, not only into towns and districts but even into families and individuals.  

“The moment this interest is surrendered to the government, and all responsibility is thrown upon civil power, farewell to the usefulness of common schools, the just pride, honor, and ornament of New England; farewell to religious liberty, for there would be but one church [the government]; farewell to political freedom, for nothing but the name of a republic would survive such a catastrophe.”  

Predictions coming true today

The legislative committee also warned that government intrusion over parental rights could “excite a feeling of jealousy, with respect to our public schools, the results of which could not but be disastrous.” 

Today we’re seeing exactly that, as tensions between parents and public-school administrations continue to rise. 

If parents and schools have a strained marriage, they’re well past the couples therapy stage. Both are ready to file for divorce. 

Consider the following examples: 

Perhaps the only reason why this rift took so long to develop was that until the 1960s, parents and school officials often shared a common Judeo-Christian ethic and culture.  

For example, public schools had a history of sponsoring class prayers until the Supreme Court declared the practice unconstitional in the 1962 Engel v. Vitale case. 

Yet it’s not only parents who find public education unmoored, but teachers themselves. John Taylor Gatto was one such teacher, who chose to resign in 1990 after winning New York City Teacher of the Year Award. 

“Although teachers do care and do work very hard,” Gatto said, “the institution is psychopathic – it has no conscience.” 

Gatto argued the school system had become so corrupted that it was hurting the very children it was supposed to help, while also weakening relationships between parent and child. 

“The way to sanity in education is for our schools to take the lead in releasing the stranglehold of institutions on family life, to promote during school time confluences of parent and child that will strengthen family bonds,” he said. 

‘Diversity of sentiments’

All these criticisms do not suggest parents must exclusively shoulder the weight of their children’s education, refusing any outside help. 

The one-room schoolhouse had many positive attributes that we can still learn from today, such as “peer-based and team-based learning,” that have unfortunately disappeared from most modern-day classrooms. Furthermore, a growing number of homeschool hybrids or co-operatives allow parents to outsource some of their educational tasks to like-minded teachers and organizations. 

Notably, these models place the primary responsibility of children’s education upon parents, not on government. In such a pluralistic, diverse and culturally fractured society as the United States has historically been, how could it be otherwise? 

“In a country like this,” the legislative committee wrote in 1840, “where such diversity of sentiments exists, especially upon theological subjects, and where morality is considered a part of religion and is, to some extent, modified by sectarian views, the difficulty and danger of attempting to introduce these subjects into our schools, according to one fixed and settled plan, to be devised by a central Board, must be obvious.” 

Rather than trying to quell this overwhelming “diversity of sentiments,” America’s strength has always stemmed from encouraging and protecting minority opinions. 

“The threat today is not that religious people are about to establish a theocracy in the United States,” former U.S. Attorney General Bill Barr recently noted. “It is that militant secularists are trying to establish an atheocracy.” 

In dealing with the current crises, we can learn by reviewing the thoughtful and prescient warnings from the past. 

Just as the legislative committee wrote in 1840, our nation should continually strive to give parents the final word, or primary custody, in raising their children until adulthood – when they are free to make their own decisions.