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Owens: The role of parents in education

Written by William C. Duncan

August 25, 2022

A unique series of events has highlighted the role of parents in their children’s education. During the COVID-19 pandemic, school closures temporarily required many parents to teach or monitor children’s schoolwork in a more direct way. More recently, parental concerns over school curriculum and policies appear to have impacted elections and may continue to have political implications.

In his remarks on education policy for Sutherland Institute’s Congressional series, Rep. Burgess Owens discussed the role of parents in education and his co-sponsorship of a proposed Parents Bill of Rights.

In the United States, the legal protection of parental rights has been closely linked to the educational context, as illustrated in three major Supreme Court cases.

The first involved a challenge to a Nebraska law that prohibited “the teaching in any private, denominational, parochial or public school, of any modern language, other than English.” The law had been enacted in 1919 during a period of hostility to German instruction in schools. In 1920, it was applied to convict Robert Meyer, a teacher in a Lutheran school, for teaching about the Bible in German to students during a lunch period. The Supreme Court struck down the law as a violation of the right of parents to choose how their children could be taught in schools, rejecting the state’s argument that the law was necessary to Americanize its citizens.

The second case was decided in 1925 and involved an Oregon law that required children to attend public schools, effectively banning religious or other private schools. This law too was invalidated by the Supreme Court. It was challenged by an organization of nuns who operated orphanages and schools and by a private military academy. The unanimous opinion concluded that the Oregon law:

unreasonably interferes with the liberty of parents and guardians to direct the upbringing and education of children under their control. … 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 obligations.

The third case involved a Wisconsin law that required children to attend public school until they were 16 years old. Amish parents in Green County, Wisconsin, withdrew their children from school after eighth grade because the Amish had determined that education past the eighth grade, when only vocational training was consistent with their faith, was a violation of their beliefs. Three Amish fathers refused to send their children to school and were fined $5 under the Wisconsin law. When their case reached the U.S. Supreme Court, it held that Wisconsin could not prosecute the Amish parents for declining to send their children to school after eighth grade. The court recognized that the state’s promotion of education was among its most important functions but still needed to yield to the religious freedom of the Amish.

These cases remind us that a viable education system will always require parental involvement and that accommodating the authority of parents to guide their children’s education enhances the freedom of all to act consistently with their own beliefs. These are lessons we always need to remember.

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