Last week a piece of important legislation totally got by me. It was Vermont H-230. In the words of Deb Bucknam, who woke me up to the implications of the bill, “it allows any minor to consent to mental health treatment without the knowledge or consent of his or her parents on issues of sexual orientation and gender identity.”
Who wouldn’t want a teenager to get the counseling he/she wants, right? Not having children myself, it was easy to slide into agreement, even though I have often questioned the right of government to interfere as much as they do with the natural authority of parents. But there are bad parents, right? So why not give the kids the right to get the counseling they need if parents are standing in the way?
But Representative Rodney Graham of Williamstown asked a compelling question on the house floor on March 23: “I believe parents have the right to know what’s going on with their minor children. There are many parents in the chambers here today. Am I to understand you won’t want to know about your children?”
Many parents will resonate strongly with this question. They will wonder why the state of Vermont doesn’t trust them to counsel their children. Who does the state trust? In other words, who will be making the referrals for these children to professional counselors without notifying the parents? Unstated, but understood, is that in addition to social workers, the school system will be making these referrals. Which brings us to an unnatural divide between many in the educational establishment and many parents. Why is this so?
I have heard enough stories from educators to know that the degree of social disintegration in our communities has become increasingly troubling and increasingly difficult for our teachers to handle. For the growing number of neglected and abused children, it makes sense to authorize school personnel to make referrals for professional help. But there is another side to the unnatural divide between the educational establishment and parents that is not about troubled kids and abusive parenting.
In a nutshell, normal, competent parents have grounds for suspecting that the educational establishment is not neutral about sexual values. Rather, educational ideology today often treats sexuality in terms of social justice and free expression more than as a factor in the individual development of the child. Based on the cases I have read, parents have good reason for concern that their children might be nudged in one direction or another. In a world where the science of sexuality is anything but solid, parent are right to object to their child being directed toward counseling on sexual orientation and gender identity without parental consent. In short they don’t want what could be the fad of the day to affect their child for a lifetime.
This realization that the educational establishment is not necessarily neutral is important across the board. It helps us understand why school choice has become such an important and rancorous issue in our country. The truth is that the educational establishment has never been neutral, although in some periods of history we have been able to achieve general agreement between the educational establishment and the public about what should be taught. In the 1950s, for example, people were pretty content with their schools. In the 1960s and 1970s, disagreement erupted over civil rights, women’s rights, the War in Vietnam, and sexual freedom, thus moving people to question the value assumptions behind the 1950s curriculum.
To many liberals today this battle is still being fought. What is interesting, though, is that liberals—in the blue states like Vermont, at least—have pretty much won control of the curriculum—social justice, climate change, identity politics, free expression of all types of sexuality, criticism of America, etc. They don’t seem to realize that their idea of the “correct” curriculum is no more inherently neutral than the 1950s curriculum. And their insistence that public moneys not go to private schools is in many minds not about “equity” but about retaining a liberal monopoly over the minds of American school children.
This is what the school choice debate in Vermont is really about—who decides what children will be taught, parents or educators? It is ironic because, as I understand it, some independent schools were formed to educate the children of the liberals and hippies that came to Vermont in the 60s and 70s in search of a more pastoral life, but who were dissatisfied with the schools.
In every era someone is going to be unhappy with education. Allowing for robust competition is the only way to allow unsatisfied parents to seek out the education they think their children deserve. At the same time competition engages all parents by giving them back the power to decide where their children will be schooled. The bad parental apples aside, no one is more committed to quality education for their kids than parents.