Parental rights advocates believe parents should have authority to determine what, when, where, and how information is taught to children in schools. School rights advocates argue that education cannot be tailored to meet every parent's individual instructions and goals. State governments are responsible for ensuring that the educational needs of children are met, but in recent years, the federal government has become influential in shaping school standards. Many lawsuits involving parental rights in public schools have been decided by American courts. The complexity of the issue poses a continual challenge for families, schools districts, and the nation's legal system.
Keywords Advocate; Curriculum; Due Process; First Amendment; Fourteenth Amendment; Parent Rights; Psychotropic drugs; Referendum; Right; School Rights
The American public school system is responsible for creating safe learning environments in which children can expand their knowledge and skills. Approximately 50.1 million students attend public schools each day; they come from a variety of religious, cultural, educational, and economic backgrounds. Most adults agree on the importance of providing children with quality instruction designed to produce well-informed, contributing members of society. However, establishing consensus on what knowledge is, how knowledge should be communicated, and who is entitled to receive knowledge has been debated in the United States for centuries.
Parental rights advocates insist that the authority to determine educational parameters should lie in the hands of parents, citing amendments in the United States Constitution and 20th century Supreme Court rulings. School rights advocates contend that the uniqueness of the American public school environment necessitates that such power be reserved for teachers and school administrators.
Since Horace Mann created the nation's first public school system in Massachusetts in the 1800s, American society has undergone significant changes. People in the United States have witnessed realities of war, immigration, and an expanding global economy. They have seen advances in transportation, technology, and communication. They have challenged attitudes on religion, sexuality, and politics. Changes in the ways people live, work, and think has affected American communities, businesses, governments, and families. They have also affected the American public school system.
Supreme Court Cases
The United States Constitution does not directly address the concept of public schooling, so each state is responsible for establishing an educational system for its citizens and resolving education-related problems. Yet, on several occasions, disagreements about parental rights in schools have demanded federal intervention: Do parents have the power to dictate which learning materials are presented to students? Can parents refuse to send children to public schools? Should parents be required to send children to public schools for a set number of years? These questions have ultimately been addressed by the United States Supreme Court. Three prominent cases present examples of Federal intervention in resolving parental rights issues:
Meyer v. State of Nebraska
Following World War I, a school district in Nebraska was sued after a teacher offered German language instruction to students at Zion Parochial School. Nebraska law prohibited the teaching of foreign languages in public and private schools, and the Nebraska Supreme Court ruled in favor of the state. The case was appealed to the United States Supreme Court and in Meyer v. State of Nebraska (1923), the lower court's ruling was overturned. The Court ruled that forbidding schools to teach languages other than English violated citizens' due process protections guaranteed by the Fourteenth Amendment (Meyer v. State of Nebraska,1923). In the decision written by Associate Justice James Clark McReynolds, the court showed support for parental rights in schools by emphasizing parents' constitutional liberties "to marry, to establish a home and bring up children" (Meyer v. State of Nebraska, 1923, para. 10).
Pierce v. Society of Sisters
In 1922, voters in the state of Oregon passed a referendum requiring all children in the state between the ages of 8 and 16 to attend public schools. Two private schools, the Hill Military Academy and the Society of Sisters of the Holy Names of Jesus and Mary, sued the state. They claimed that their First Amendment and Fourteenth Amendment rights had been violated. An Oregon District Court ruled in favor of the referendum, and the ruling was appealed to the United States Supreme Court. In Pierce v. Society of Sisters (1925), the Supreme Court ruled in favor of private schools, stating that the Oregon referendum interfered "with the liberty of parents and guardians to direct the upbringing and education of children" (Pierce v. Society of Sisters, 1925, para. 10). According to the Court, parents must comply with compulsory attendance laws, but they maintain the right to choose between public and private school options (Russo, 2005).
Wisconsin v. Yoder
In the early 1970s, an Amish community in the state of Wisconsin refused to send their children to school after the students had graduated from the eighth grade. Wisconsin law required all students to attend school until age 16. The Amish viewed the state's law as a direct threat to their religion and cultural way of life. In Wisconsin v. Yoder, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of Amish parents, declaring that the state's compulsory attendance law conflicted with protections afforded by the First Amendment (Wisconsin v. Yoder, 1972). In the opinion of the Court, "a state's interest in universal education…is not totally free from a balancing process when it impinges on fundamental rights…and the traditional interest of parents with respect to the religious upbringing of their children…." (Wisconsin v. Yoder, 1972, para. 11).
The Parental Rights
Reading, writing, math, and science remained the core of curriculum in most public schools throughout the 20th century, but changing needs of society led to changes in classrooms, too. Schools added courses in health education, sexuality, and cultural diversity. They began requiring immunizations as prerequisites for enrollment. They created student questionnaires on topics like suicide attempts, preferred sexual orientation, and typical home environments. Schools viewed the changes in curriculums, medical requirements, and surveys as vital to their educational missions.
Some parents became concerned with the increasing influence and power schools had assumed. In 1993, the Parental Rights and Responsibilities Act (PRRA), was sent to Congress as legislation to limit government's involvement in children's lives, especially within the boundaries of the public school system. The bill found sponsors in 28 states (Billitteri, 1996), and its advocates claimed the legislation was needed to empower parents against the established educational bureaucracy (Billitteri, 1996).
Professional and governmental organizations, such as the National Education Association and the American Civil Liberties Union, opposed PRRA. Affording greater legal power to parents, the groups argued, would undermine the nation's public education system, lead to exorbitant legal bills incurred fighting parent-instigated court battles, and result in a lessening of child-protection standards in schools (Billitteri, 1996). Passage of the bill, they warned, would limit schools' abilities to teach sex education courses, select library books, and offer pregnancy and drug counseling to teenagers (Billitteri, 1996). The Parental Rights and Responsibilities Act failed to pass.
Yet, the impetus that initiated PRRA did not dissipate with the bill's failure to become law. In a nationwide telephone survey conducted by International Communications Research in 1999, 52% of adults felt that schools had strayed too far from teaching the basic subject materials ("Americans willing," 1999). Many respondents wanted expanded legal control over curriculum, discipline, and values that their children were exposed to in public schools. Some parents argued it was not the job of teachers to offer curriculum instruction on subjects such as homosexuality or contraception. Others did not want schools to dictate what medications children should be required to take. A few believed school-sponsored questionnaires were too intrusive on children's privacy.
No Child Left Behind Act of 2001
In 2001, Congress passed federal legislation, called the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB), designed to connect federal funding with measurable improvements in public school standards. Among other things, the law required:
• Each public school teacher be certified or licensed and demonstrate mastery of relevant subject matter;
• Each student be tested in math and reading (and later science) in grades 3-8 and at least once in high school; and that
• Parents be allowed to enroll children in an alternative school if their assigned one was identified as needing improvement...
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