Personal Freedom

The Presumption of State Stewardship Over Children

Utah law clearly and correctly states that parents possess “a fundamental liberty interest in the care, custody, and management of the parent’s children.” Unfortunately, other sections of the state code conflict with this recognition of natural rights.

Despite affirming the primacy of parental stewardship over a child, the state mandates that “the parent of a school-age minor shall enroll and send the school-age minor to a public or regularly established private school.” Several limited exceptions are offered, most notably for those parents who sign an affidavit that they will be homeschooling their child. But even this exception comes with restraints; parents wishing to educate their own children must use “the subjects the State Board of Education requires to be taught in public schools” and “for the same length of time as minors are required by law to receive instruction in public schools.” In other words, this limited concession comes with significant strings attached.

In the section of code emphasizing parental rights, we further read that the state recognizes that “a parent has the right, obligation, responsibility, and authority to raise, manage, train, educate, provide for, and reasonably discipline the parent’s children” and, importantly, that “the state’s role is secondary and supportive to the primary role of a parent.” This recognition appears to be in name only, for the relevant law falls short of what a full recognition would require.

Compulsory education presumes state stewardship over children. This mandate violates the affirmed fundamental liberty interest of parents who might wish to educate their children in a fashion not approved by the state. To be internally consistent, then, Utah law must be amended to either reject this fundamental liberty interest of parents regarding the education of their child, or to reject compulsion as a component of the state’s educational offerings. We believe that the latter is the correct course.

What would repealing Utah’s compulsory education law look like? It would not change the existence of government schools nor their funding. It would not change the control of school boards nor the curriculum used to educate children whose parents wish to enroll them in government schools. It would simply remove the presumption of state stewardship over children, and parents would act within their stewardship to affirmatively decide to educate their children in whatever manner they think best. (Another effect would be the savings to taxpayers and reduction in the size of government by the corresponding elimination of truancy laws and their enforcement.)

Of course, the basis of justification for compulsory education is that this parental stewardship would allow some parents—either as a result of laziness, incompetence, or ignorance—to fail to educate their children at all, neither choosing to send their children to a government school nor assuming the task themselves. This claim is not new. For example, an 1897 report prepared for the Public Education Association of Philadelphia stated the following about compulsory education:

Undoubtedly, it is not the highest ideal in education. It is but a means to the end desired. With reason, its opponents urge that “the family is the unit of our social fabric; the control of the child is a right inherent in the parent.” Yet so long as we have ignorant or selfish parents, we shall have to resort to compulsion: for by its aid only can the child’s right to an education be enforced. In our zeal for parental authority, let us not forget the child.

Of course, the ends (educating children) cannot justify illegitimate means (compulsion and a violation of parental rights). And it may in fact be true that some parents would neglect to send their kids to school. These fringe cases, however, cannot legitimize the institutionalization of compulsion, nor the abrogation of parental stewardship in matters of education.

Further, it cannot be accurately assumed that schooling is necessary to educate a child. A child learns through play, in conversation with his parents and others, and from everything he does throughout his life. In later years, he learns through reading, work, and conversation with a wide variety of people. Mandating attendance at a school is not required to receive an education. As Mark Twain (whose formal schooling ended at age 12) famously wrote, “I have never let my schooling interfere with my education.”

More importantly, Utah law states that, “The fundamental liberty interest of a parent concerning the care, custody, and management of the parent’s children is recognized, protected, and does not cease to exist simply because a parent may fail to be a model parent.” In other words, these fringe cases where some parents may fail to school their child does not provide justification for the state to assume educational stewardship of their children, let alone the children in every single Utah family. Rightly did Thomas Jefferson note that the fringe cases do not legitimize a policy affecting every family:

It is better to tolerate the rare instance of a parent refusing to let his child be educated, than to shock the common feelings and ideas by the forcible asportation [removal] and education of the infant against the will of the father.

Ultimately, this boils down to a conflict in state code. Does the state only serve a “secondary and supportive [role] to the primary role of a parent,” including and especially in matters of education, or is it the steward of children in Utah and therefore able to compel them all to attend its schools? This glaring inconsistency must be addressed and corrected. In doing so, it’s important to realize the ideological implications of this inconsistency, as Psychiatrist Thomas Szasz once wrote:

Compulsory education is the chink in the armor of capitalist societies: they try to teach children the values of contract and initiative, but base their educational system on compulsion and conformity. Communist societies suffer from no such inconsistency: they try to teach their children command and obedience, and their educational system is consistent with inculcating this ethic.

We aim to see this corrected, and side with the section of Utah code that affirms parental rights as fundamental. Parents should not be required to seek the state’s blessing in order to homeschool. Parents should not be threatened with jail time and fines for fulfilling their natural stewardship in educating their child. Parents are not supported by the state in the current arrangement, but are made subservient to the legislative mandate compelling them to recognize state stewardship over their own children.

We recognize the importance of all children receiving an education, but believe that parents must be allowed to determine how best that education will be received. As circumstances arise which suggest that some children may be falling behind because of parental neglect or ineptitude, then we believe that family members, friends, and concerned neighbors should fulfill their societal role—being their “brother’s keeper”—by offering support to the parents and children and working through persuasion to improve their circumstances and educational future. Coercion has no place in our society in regard to such important matters.