In a recent “Lean Forward” ad, MSNBC’s Melissa Harris-Perry advocated for increased investment in public education. The premise of her idea is fine, and fairly mundane. I may disagree about how effective such funding and its allocation has been historically, but I do not see anything radical in a simple rallying call for education spending. Harris-Perry’s rationale for why investment in public education is not high enough, however, is where she deviates from the mainstream. Rather than outlining the benefits of public education, or the dangers to kids and communities a lack of educational opportunities imposes, she points to what she perceives as a problem in the way we as Americans view our children.
“We have never invested as much in public education as we should have because we’ve always had kind of a private notion of children,” says Harris-Perry. She goes on to say that “we have to break through our kind of private idea that kids belong to their parents, or kids belong to their families, and recognize that kids belong to whole communities.”
The movement to push children, or at least the responsibility for rearing those children, from parents and families is one that echoes more radical regimes. The Communist Party Education Workers Congress outlined such a movement in 1918: “We must remove the children from the crude influence of their families. We must take them over and, to speak frankly, nationalize them.” And while this is certainly not the goal in the minds of Harris-Perry and her supporters, we can find the similarities all the same — namely, an attempt to marginalize the parent’s role in raising their children. This mindset is detrimental to the individualism that has so long characterized our nation, and it is a mindset that progressives like Harris-Perry would do well to abandon.
The conflicting ideas around parental responsibility for children are not new or untested waters. They have been taken all the way up to the Supreme Court multiple times, and the rulings can show us a lot about what the Constitution says about Harris-Perry’s “collective notion.” In 1925, the Supreme Court heard a case — Pierce v. Society of Sisters — in which it unanimously struck down a compulsory education act enacted in Oregon, stating, in part, that “The child is not the mere creature of the State; those who nurture him and direct his destiny have the right coupled with the high duty, to recognize, and prepare him for additional duties.” This judgment clearly demonstrates the precedence of parental rights above the interests of the state when it comes to children.
A more modern example can be found in Troxel v. Granville, a 1999 case in which the Court defended the “right of parents, under the due process clause of the Constitution’s Fourteenth Amendment, to make decisions concerning the care, custody, and control of their children.” Justice Sandra Day O’Connor summed up the importance of this right by saying that this liberty interest “is perhaps the oldest of the fundamental liberty interests recognized by this Court.”
The issue of public education is an important and wholly valid one, especially while various long-term budget plans are considered. We all contribute tax dollars to public schools, which are an option for every family. The argument for more spending in the realm of education is a valid one, but it is undermined by the more ambitiously progressive overtones of the “Lean Forward” ad. Harris-Perry took the issue several steps too far by advocating a shift away from the private, parental responsibility for children — historically protected by the Supreme Court — toward a more collective ownership of children. Contrary to Harris-Perry’s beliefs, kids do, in fact, belong to their families — this concept is rooted in our very history and culture. Public-education funding is up for debate, but progressive moves to marginalize parents and collectivize children should continue to be resisted wherever they arise.
Sam Novack is an Opinion columnist for The Cavalier Daily. His column runs Wednesdays.