Parents and schools: What does involvement look like in a democracy?

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In the early afternoon at a one-room schoolhouse northeast of Hampton, Nebraska, a bespectacled teacher named Robert T. Meyer opened a Bible and began to read – in German. This was a daily event for him and his elementary aged students at the Zion Evangelical Lutheran parochial school; the best way, he and the children’s immigrant parents agreed, for his pupils to learn religion.

It was also, Mr. Meyer knew, illegal.

The prior year, 1919, in the shadow of World War I and in the midst of growing tension among ethnic groups in the Midwest, the Nebraska state legislature had passed a bill outlawing elementary educational instruction in any language other than English. It was a part of a flurry of laws intended to ensure that young students grew up American in “language, thought and ideals,” according to politicians. And it was part of a debate that would continue to swirl around the intersection of schools, parents, and democracy for a century – the precursor to the fights sweeping school board meetings the last few years, or the new “parental rights” bills introduced in statehouses across the country.

Why We Wrote This

From the founding of the PTA to calls for desegregation, parental participation has shaped U.S. education. But how does that jibe with what the designers of public schooling intended in order to create informed citizens? What lessons does history offer about how much parents can and should shape education in a democracy? Part 4 in a series.

“A real democratic society is a society in which individuals are empowered in every dimension of their lives. And since there’s nothing people care more about than their children and education, that’s where the rubber meets the road,” says Steven Mintz, a history professor at the University of Texas at Austin. “Since the beginning, people have had very divergent views about what a democratic educational system ought to be, and where parents fit in. It’s always been complicated.”

Indeed, the story of what happened to Mr. Meyer is part of a long-standing conflict that sits underneath today’s political posturing over mask wearing and critical race theory. At its core, it reflects an unresolved question about how parents have – and should – influence the American education system, a dilemma that underlies both the successes and inherent conflicts of public school in the United States. 

Our managing editor explains why we wrote this series

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Debate over public-school curriculum, parental involvement, and fair access isn’t new, but it has become increasingly heated. “So it seemed to all of us that it was a good moment to look at public education, democracy, and the future of America.” Amelia Newcomb speaks with Monitor podcaster Samantha Laine Perfas about our four-part series.

School authorities and state legislators have regularly pushed back against parental influence. At times, such as in early 20th-century Nebraska, they explicitly worked to undermine family norms and culture for what they saw as a greater social good. But parents have also repeatedly fought for more say over their children’s schooling. And they have changed the education system in profound ways.

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