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Jewish World Review Sept. 2, 1999 /21 Elul, 5759

Mona Charen

Mona Charen
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Trust parents? --
WHEN A FEDERAL JUDGE in Ohio suspended Cleveland's voucher system and then partially reinstated it, the annual debate between liberals and conservatives about school choice got a jump start. Liberals argue that school choice will skim the best students out of the public system, and that parents may rely on poor criteria, like location or the star power of the principal, when selecting a school.

Conservatives counter that education is ailing, and just because we cannot fix everything all at once for every student is no reason to deny a better life to some right away. They further believe that a little competition can only improve the public schools. And they are certain that parents know what is best for their own children, and that accordingly we should trust them to make good decisions.

On the last point, conservatives would be well-advised to temper their vehemence. While it is a safe generalization to say that no one cares about your kid as much as you do, it is too simplistic by far to urge that we should always "trust parents" to make good decisions for their children.

This is reminiscent of the feminist pro-abortion argument to the effect that we must "trust women" to make good decisions about these highly intimate matters. Why? Women make poor decisions every day. They fall for financial scams, stay with abusive boyfriends and lie to special prosecutors. Parents, too. There are millions of parents in America, and alas, a significant percentage are not doing a very good job.

Chester E. Finn Jr., the guru of education reform, has a useful piece in the September issue of Commentary, in which he answers the provocative question: "Can Parents Be Trusted?" He begins by recognizing that wherever vouchers have been offered, impoverished parents have flocked to take advantage of them. In Washington, D.C., for example, the Washington Scholarship Fund, a privately funded voucher program that pays up to half the tuition at private schools, received 7,573 applications for 1000 spots in 1998. Other cities have seen similar numbers. It is clear, at least with regard to poor schools located in cities, that parents are desperate for alternatives.

On the other hand, it is impossible to look honestly at education today and not recognize that parents are part of the problem. "Although many parents continue to work with great determination to ensure that their children develop into adults of sound character," Finn writes, "an appallingly large number are falling down on the job."

Readers of this column are familiar with stories of parents who not only decline to discipline their children but will sue the schools if their darlings meet with discipline in the classroom. A youngster who had been punished for plagiarism was "supported" by his parents, who intervened with a number of school officials attempting to diminish the consequences. In New Hampshire, Finn reports, a third-grade boy was suspended for attacking a female classmate. The boy's parents were indignant, explaining to the principal that "boys just express their anger physically."

Parents are also the driving force behind grade inflation and the accompanying degradation of standards. Teachers complain that parents will not accept anything less than an A or a B, and parents tend to blame the schools, not the child or themselves, when a child falls into the bottom half of the class.

Yet fewer and fewer parents even bother to show up for parent/teacher conferences, and many do not even take the trouble to read the memos teachers send home in the kids' backpacks. An air of unseriousness about school pervades many homes. Many parents permit their children to skip school for frivolous reasons, to watch TV while doing homework and to cheat on tests without shame. Other parents, particularly workaholics, are remote from their kids' lives altogether. As one middle-school teacher in New York City lamented: "We have to shoo the children home at six sometimes. They don't want to go. No one's there."

Historian Henry Steele Commager put the matter succinctly in Life Magazine. "Many of the failures we ascribe to contemporary education are in fact failures of society as a whole." Those words were written in 1950 -- but cannot be improved upon today.

JWR contributor Mona Charen reads all of her mail. Let her know what you think by clicking here. Please bear in mind, though, that while all letters are read, due to the heavy amount of traffic, not all letters can be answered.

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©1999, Creators Syndicate