Parents, not schools, must ultimately be responsible for children

Few deny that there is an education crisis in this country. But even fewer seem to agree on the causes of, and solution to, the crisis.

Many suggest that the way to boost academic achievement is to give more money to schools. But the fact that national SAT scores have declined 73 points since 1960 while education spending has increased 200 percent (in real dollars) suggests that the education crisis is not so much a question of lack of spending, but lack of spending priorities. Could it be that we as a society have simply overburdened the public school system with demands that detract from the legitimate mission of academic achievement?

We have locked ourselves in a bitter cycle. The more that parents abdicate their traditional child-rearing responsibilities, the more the public school system steps in to assume those responsibilities. And the more the schools fulfill these responsibilities, the more parents and society come to depend on government to take actions which were historically in the domain of the family.

Students of organizational theory will recognize this phenomenon as a classic example of the theory of subsidiarity. Subsidiarity dictates that a higher or more centralized organization (in this case, the government school system) shouldn't take on responsibilities that can be performed by a lower or more local organization (in this case, the individual or family) because this ultimately leads to a "de-skilled" lower organization.

Schools systematically de-skill and disengage parents who come to depend on education professionals for much more than academic instruction. In 1960, when SAT scores were at their all-time high, education professionals were focusing on academic achievement because families had not abdicated their traditional responsibilities. Today, school officials are making many nonacademic decisions for children, including inappropriate medical and psychological judgments that leave schools wide open to lawsuits.

A recent Detroit News editorial encouraged Livonia schools to get out of the business of measuring children's body fat after a parent complained that his 7-year-old daughter stopped eating after a teacher's body-fat diagnosis. The News urged the schools to, "Leave lifestyle issues where they belong, with the family."

Parents across the country are complaining that school officials are making pseudo-diagnoses of Attention Deficit Disorder and are barring children from school unless the student is put on the prescribed stimulant Ritalin. In some cases, such as one presented to Congress this year, school officials are calling Child Protective Services and charging parents with medical neglect for refusing to drug their children.

Recently two Georgia parents learned that a school counselor drove their 13- and 15-year-old daughters to a county health clinic where they received Pap smears, AIDS tests, condoms, and birth control pills. The parents' permission was never requested and the school and the clinic told the parents that the parents did not have the right to the test results because of patient confidentiality.

This sort of incident will be repeated as long as government continues to offer more money to schools that take on additional responsibilities. In a 1996 letter, a Medicaid consultant rebuked a superintendent for not using enough federal tax dollars, helpfully noting that, "Medicaid . . . has been expanded to cover not only therapies, but also social work and psychological services, nursing and audiological services, hearing and vision screening, and transportation." Later in the letter, the consultant offered that "the potential for dollars is limitless."

The government also encourages school-based health clinics that provide mental health services using Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) and Medicaid funding. Since 1991, IDEA has included children with such controversial emotional disabilities as Attention Deficit Disorder. And Medicaid funds can even be spent to help a child deal with "academic trauma caused by breaking up with a boyfriend or girlfriend."

The end result of the schools' increased responsibilities is a culture in which parents become accountable to the schools, rather than the schools being accountable to parents. This is best exemplified by the Chicago public school system's issuance of parent report cards in which parents are graded, and those who do not spend enough "quality time" with their children get a home visit from school officials.

It cannot be disputed that the breakdown of the family has led many well-meaning policy-makers to heap more responsibilities on the schools, but right now schools are sending parents a subtle, yet undeniable, message: "Don't worry, we'll handle everything. Just get them on the bus in the morning."

But we must ask ourselves if we should expect schools to become one-stop shops for all of a child's needs. Should we expect overworked teachers to now be trained in psychology and make medical assessments of children? Should we encourage parents to transfer their responsibilities to government officials?

It could be that the United States will not see a rise in academic achievement until the roles of parents and schools are once again properly aligned.

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