When we hear about “school choice,” we usually think about parents selecting among various education options for their children, be it a public school, a religious school, or homeschooling. As such, policy discussions surrounding school choice typically involve proposals such as education vouchers or charter schools that give parents more options when it comes to where they can send their children to school.
While giving families a diverse selection of educational pathways is an excellent policy goal, it is important to highlight the underlying foundation of school choice: the fundamental right of parents to direct the upbringing of their children. Parents have the right to raise and educate their children consistent with their beliefs and values without fear of being unjustly punished by the government. Greater school choice affirms that parents have a right to align educational goals with their child’s religious, intellectual, moral, and emotional development.
Considering this root purpose for school choice, it is obvious that school choice does not simply entail where your child goes to school but also what they learn when they get there.
This became even clearer to parents over the past two years as children were forced to learn from home during the pandemic, giving parents an unprecedented level of access to what their children were being taught every day. For some parents, what they saw was horrifying. Their local schools were inculcating in children racial, sexual, and gender identities that directly conflicted with the religious beliefs parents were working so hard to cultivate in their children.
In response, more and more parents turned out to local school board meetings to push back against these radical and harmful policies. Some parents even took these battles to the courtroom. They challenged school district policies that allow schools to treat students as though they are the opposite sex, including changing their name and gender pronouns, without parental consent. And they sought to stop policies that require students to adopt racial identities in line with the ideology known as critical race theory.
Given this movement for parental rights, it is shocking to discover how few protections for parents are enshrined in state law when it comes to their ability to have access to and input in the educational materials of public schools. Only a small number of states have laws that expressly define and protect parents’ rights, and fewer still give parents the right to review curricula and learning materials in advance of them being taught.
In fact, many states, including those with extensive “school choice” options, aren’t actually giving parents the choice to be involved in the education of their children.
It is clear that more states need to enact legislation to protect parental rights. When determining how best to protect parents and their children, states should look to Arizona, which has one of the most comprehensive parental rights protections on the books. Earlier this year, Arizona enacted legislation that strengthened its parental bill of rights and gave parents even greater ability to direct the upbringing of their children at school. Arizona’s parents now have three of the best statutory protections for their rights: a declaration that parental rights are fundamental, a detailed list of parents’ specific rights to access and approve of learning material, and a legal remedy if those fundamental rights are violated.
When states enact laws like Arizona’s that give parents the opportunity to review curricula and other school policies before they are implemented, parents are equipped to make informed decisions about whether their children should be exposed to certain ideas.
Such access to the education of children is the essence of what it means to have school choice. As children go back to school this fall, parents must remember this and remind policymakers: School choice doesn’t end at the schoolhouse gate.