Education has long been one of the most divisive issues in American law. In the time since the formation of the United States, there has been a struggle between the American government and parents regarding who has the right to control a child’s education (Browne-Barbour, 2006). Browne-Barbour (2006) notes that even still, school was not compulsory in all states until approximately 1918, and before that states were able to control the specific circumstances surrounding schooling for children in their own state.
Some schools chose to maintain much more significant control over the children in their specific state than others; indeed, some states have a much longer history of compulsory education than others as well. Some states seem to err on the side of the parents insofar as rights are concerned, but there are still many issues that are raised. Curriculum design, attendance policies, and immunization policies are the most common legal issues that parents raise in regards to their rights in their children’s educational process.
The need for specific balance between the rights of the state and the rights of the parent insofar as education is concerned is crucial. A parent should be allowed involvement in his or her child’s educational process, and there should be an element of self-determination in parental involvement in their child’s future (Parentalrights.org, 2015). However, parents are not infallible, and many have the potential to make bad decisions regarding their children’s education and the general well-being of their child or children—thus, the state also has to set guidelines for expected behavior for parents, in the hope that parents will meet the state halfway and adhere to specific standards for behavior, while still maintaining their rights to do things like homeschool their children (Parentalrights.org, 2015). In Troxel v. Granville, the Supreme Court noted that the parental relationship with a child is not considered by the Court to be absolute, and that the child’s best interest should always be the goal of the state (Browne-Barbour, 2006).
The issue of attendance has always been one that has been difficult. As previously stated, school was not mandatory for children until the early 1900s; before that time, many students would attend some school, but retain only a marginal educational level (Browne-Barbour, 2006). Pierce v. Society of Sisters established that the United States could indeed make education mandatory for students, but the government could not make public education mandatory for students—students must attend school, but the state cannot mandate state-sponsored education for students (Browne-Barbour, 2006).
The school is an interesting place in a legal sense, because while children are at school, the school is acting in loco parentis—in the place of the parent (Alexander & Alexander, 2011). This is fundamentally important because the public school is, at once, an agent of the state and an independent actor for the child in its care (Alexander & Alexander, 2011). This puts the school in a difficult situation at times, especially when Constitutional questions are raised in the school environment, and the federally mandated rights of students and parents must be weighed against the rights of the school (Alexander & Alexander, 2011; Browne-Barbour, 2006). The right of the school to ensure that children are properly educated is, however, subordinate to the parent’s right to ensure that their child is raised in accordance with their values in many ways; although a child must be educated, the system allows parents to choose educational plans that suit their lives (Browne-Barbour, 2006). Prince v. Massachusetts established this precedent for parents in 1944 (Browne-Barbour, 2006).
Another significant area of contention for many parents is the issue of curriculum. In the American South particularly, there is much debate regarding the nature of the creation of the universe and the driving forces in the universe; public schools, which are required by law to teach non-religious material, often do not cover Christian creation stories as part of the science curriculum (Lansdown, Jimerson & Shahroozi, 2014). Parents have a number of options when it comes to objectionable content: they can request their child removed from the classroom, they can teach their child alternative views at home, they can homeschool their child, and so on (Parentalrights.org, 2015).
This is an interesting legal area, however, because students are protected against undue restriction by the state insofar as the information that they can learn in schools—Meyer v. State of Nebraska suggests that the government cannot curtail a student’s educational access on a whim, but this is a right that is granted to parents seemingly without question, perhaps due to their driving influence in their children’s lives (Lansdown, Jimerson & Shahroozi, 2014; Browne-Barbour, 2006). Meyer establishes that the state has the right to compel reasonable restrictions and set reasonable curricula for schools; however, as is the case with many legal decisions, the test for “reasonable” can be slightly problematic, especially as the legal system as a whole moves towards a more holistic understanding of the multidimensionality of the state’s rights, parental rights, and the child’s rights (Lansdown, Jimerson & Shahroozi, 2014; Browne-Barbour, 2006).
In recent years, the vaccination debate has grown significantly, although this issue is still decided at a state level. The Parental Rights (2015) watchdog group notes that the new California law requiring all students to be vaccinated is particularly invasive for parents who choose not to vaccinate for personal reasons, whether those reasons are religious or otherwise (Alexander & Alexander, 2011). Wisconsin v. Yoder found that schools could not mandate Amish children to attend school after eighth grade because it violated the religious with which they were raised (Browne-Barbour, 2006). Yoder has been used as legal precedent in many cases to provide the basis for exception to rules like the mandatory vaccination policies that are currently in place in the United States today (Browne-Barbour, 2006).
The Parental Rights Amendment to the Constitution provides the legal basis for parental rights in many of these cases, and underscores the importance of the parental role for the development of the child (Parentalrights.org, 2015). However, it is important t note that the rights of the parent are not absolute by any means; parental rights can be overruled by the rights of the child and the rights of the state in certain circumstances (Browne-Barbour, 2006; Alexander & Alexander, 2011). Determining the balance of rights in a specific situation can be difficult, especially with divisive issues like attendance, curriculum, and immunization; a parent’s right to be involved with all of these issues is curtailed both by the rights of the student and the rights of the state.
Alexander, K., & Alexander, M. D. (2011). American public school law. Cengage Learning.
Browne-Barbour, V. S. (2006). Compulsory attendance and parental rights: There are limits. InForum on Public Policy (Vol. 2, pp. 360-377).
Lansdown, G., Jimerson, S. R., & Shahroozi, R. (2014). Children's rights and school psychology: Children's right to participation. Journal of school psychology, 52(1), 3-12.
Parentalrights.org,. (2015). States Watch - Parentalrights.org - Protecting Children by Empowering Parents . Retrieved 14 July 2015, from http://www.parentalrights.org/states