The Parent Trap

Michigan parents are apathetic rubes whose disregard for their children’s education has doomed this state to economic destruction — or at least that’s the conclusion drawn by some in the media in response to a recent opinion poll by the Lansing-based firm EPIC-MRA. But before you start cramming your belongings into the back of a U-Haul and heading for the interstate, let’s have a closer look at the numbers.

Stay Engaged

Receive our weekly emails!

The Detroit News laments that only 27 percent of Michigan parents believe a good education is essential for getting ahead in life. The pollsters themselves cite this figure in their executive summary, adding that parents "lack a strong commitment to the importance of education." What neither of those sources makes clear is that it was not a "yes" or "no" question. The full survey report reveals that respondents were given five possible choices, from "not important" to "essential." Fully 98 percent of them said a good education is important for getting ahead in life, with 78 percent saying it is either very important or essential.

Another questionable but purportedly damning finding: Only 54 percent of parents think that everyone should get a college education. This is a loaded question. Many of us know people who are thriving both personally and professionally who happen to lack college degrees. Some of the most successful and brightest people I have worked with or for have been college dropouts, among them, Bill Gates. Last I heard, he was doing all right. Then there’s the delightful and energetic young couple who own the finest dining establishment in my area. Neither seriously contemplated college. Neither appears any the worse for their decision.

Michigan parents do value higher education. Eighty-seven percent want their children to attend college — a statistic from the full report that certain editorialists and PR flacks neglected to mention. The fact that parents do not unanimously support extending mandatory school attendance to the age of 22 justifies neither hand-wringing nor hair-pulling.

By far the most fallacious conclusion drawn from the EPIC-MRA poll data is the following claim by The News editorial board: "State law and common sense give parents the fundamental right to direct their child's education. But many parents have shoved off all the work on others."

Codswallop. With only rare exceptions, it is parents who have been shoved out of their children’s educational lives, and it is the leaders and promoters of the public school system who have done the shoving.

Before the rise of state-run school systems in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, education in this country was completely voluntary and parent-directed. Parents decided when, what and by whom their children were taught. There were no state-level education bureaucracies, textbook selection committees, school boards or teachers union lobbyists. Even in the semipublic district schools that were the precursors to state schooling, parents not only selected the teachers, but often the textbooks as well.

Public schooling has become a machine that tries to reduce parents to spectators in their own children’s education. They are encouraged to exercise little or no real say over when, where, how or by whom their children are educated. To the extent that they can choose a school without incurring major financial costs, it is generally only from within a narrowly prescribed pool of official, government-run or government-approved providers, most of which have to follow the same rules and curricula. Over the course of the past hundred years, parents have been shouldered aside from virtually all their educational responsibilities by a bureaucratic behemoth that continually seeks to move decision-making power to ever more remote levels of government. The role now assigned to parents by the public education system is to get their children dressed in the morning and point them toward the school bus.

This process was not entirely accidental. In his 1901 book "Social Control," sociologist and public school booster Edward A. Ross wrote, "Another gain [of public schooling] lies in the partial substitution of the teacher for the parent as the model upon which the child forms itself."[1] George S. Counts, one of the most influential education figures of the 1920s and ‘30s, celebrated what he perceived as the emancipation of children from "the coercive influence of the small family or community group."[2] In conjunction with his favorable use of the word "indoctrination," Counts encouraged teachers to seize the reins of educational power so as to mold the coming generation. He titled his 1932 education manifesto "Dare the School Build a New Social Order?"

In subsequent generations, a phalanx of education bureaucrats and philosophers have continued to chip away at parental and local control of education, seeking the elimination of one-room schoolhouses and the consolidation of districts into ever larger, less responsive, less accountable agglomerations. After this relentless and highly successful campaign to usurp parental power, public school advocates now have the temerity to complain of parental disengagement. In doing so, they become the proverbial boy who kills his parents and then begs for mercy on the grounds that he’s an orphan.


Andrew J. Coulson is senior fellow in education policy at the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, a research and educational institute headquartered in Midland, Mich. Permission to reprint in whole or in part is hereby granted, provided that the author and the Center are properly cited.

[1] Quoted in Herbert M. Kliebard, The Struggle for the American Curriculum (New York: Routledge, 1995), p. 80.

[2] ibid, p. 161.