Recently, there has been a surge of protest in educational circles over the pending congressional Parental Rights and Responsibilities Act.
The act protects "the fundamental right of a parent to direct the upbringing of a child." The hostility with which the bill has been received among educators is, unfortunately, a prime example of the mutual distrust separating parents from the professionals to whom they once looked for help with childrearing.
School administrators insist that children increasingly need protection from the circumscribing influences of ignorant and backward mothers and fathers who, they insist, would "raise total havoc with the curriculum." Parents contend otherwise. They've become more convinced that children need protection from the experiments of arrogant and irresponsible educators.
So who's right? In my view, parents. August W. Steinhilber, general counsel for the National School Boards Association, charges that if the bill passes, we'll have parents censoring Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet because it deals with "teenage sex." Yet for the past three years I've been traveling around the country talking with parents about the challenges of raising children in the 1990s and in that time, not one parent has ever complained of too much Shakespeare in the classroom. (Quite the opposite!)
Parents have complained about too many "life skills" programs. They insist that the relentless assault on parental authority and family values in these courses is one major and vastly ignored cause of the declining well-being of children. These parents say that in an age of moral decay and family breakdown, the schools should be supporting the strongest possible parental engagement in raising children.
Parents have also expressed concern about what they consider an increasingly reckless use of psychotherapy in education. Consider the case of Jason Newkirk, a third grader at the Whitehills Elementary Schools in East Lansing, Mich. In 1990, Jason's teacher sent him to the school counselor, Michael Fink, ostensibly to play checkers. But Mr. Fink did more than that. He subjected the boy - who apparently had social problems - to psychiatric treatment using a method for which he had not been professionally trained.
This went against an explicit request by Jason's parents not to counsel the boy. When Jason's parents found out what was happening, they confronted the school administration, but the school refused to order the counseling sessions suspended. It also withheld any information about the sessions from the Newkirks.
The Newkirks - who had to engage a psychiatrist for Jason as a result of anxieties caused by the sessions - sued the school district. The Western District of Michigan court and the Sixth Circuit court ruled that the school did not violate any established right of the parents in performing its so-called "mental health treatments" on the boy over his parents objections.
An unusual case of educational malpractice? The Newkirks' experience is probably more common than one would think. Last year, my fourth-grade daughter came home from her suburban Connecticut middle school in tears, asking to be removed from a weekly class "meeting" we never knew existed. She said she had to tell us what happened, even though the counselor had admonished the children never to tell their parents what goes on in these encounter sessions.
That day the counselor had played a group-dynamic game with the children, in which they were to state the "qualities" they believed they had. Most of the children said things like, "I'm athletic," or "I'm musical." But one sensitive, hyperactive boy blurted out, "I guess I'm annoying." The class whooped and cheered.
The counselor responded by asking the children to name ways in which the boy was annoying. She then enjoined the class "to think up ways" in which they "could help him to be less annoying." My daughter said the attendant "roast" lasted 10 minutes, during which time she watched in growing consternation as the child dissolved into tremors.
The slippery legal context in which such potentially destructive psycho-dynamic exercises are pursued in classrooms and counseling offices makes it nearly impossible for parents to protect their children. Indeed, under the auspices of life-skills curriculum, children have been psychoanalyzed, hypnotized, and interrogated on private matters - often by individuals who have no therapeutic credentials whatsoever.
Educators also have subjected students to sexually vulgar demonstrations and materials without parental knowledge or recourse, and they have recruited children for a variety of arguable causes, from sexual diversity to radical environmentalism.
The Parental Rights and Responsibilities Act isn't the first congressional legislation that has attempted to address what has become a widespread problem of child exploitation in the schools. The Grassley amendment to the Goals 2000 bill and the Family Privacy Protection Act also have tried to attack this problem.
This particular bill, however, has more comprehensive legal implications. It might effectively grant parents substantive rights to review and reject controversial school programs.
Educators are rightfully anxious about the bill. If the hundreds of parents I've talked to are representative (and I suspect they are), then its passage would likely result in some hefty challenges to the educational establishment, namely, a consolidated effort to turn the focus of the educational enterprise away from experiments in psychosocial engineering and toward a more concerted academic mission.
Recently I heard the mother of a 13-year-old public school student complain that a 40-minute period of his L.I.F.E. course at school (the acronym stands for "Learning, Interaction, Feelings and Experiences," an apparently mandatory course) was devoted to a discussion of sexual foreplay. "What he doesn't know yet is what a preposition is," she commented. "For that, I'm hiring a tutor at $50 an hour." If the Parental Rights bill gets passed, that mother may soon be saving herself a lot of money.