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Published in Print: December 6, 2000, as School Politics 101


School Politics 101

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Parents are the real consumers of education. 'For the children' is nothing more than another limp political code phrase.

Another election has come and (almost) gone. The focus of national attention has naturally been on the close presidential and Congressional races, but there were numerous local, school-related elections, too. Voters selected school board members, approved or rejected tax levies, decided bond issues, and so on. And in these races, a particularly noticeable campaign rhetoric was in evidence: Invocations to act for "the children" permeated the speeches, airwaves, yard signs, and thinking of local school politics this election year.

We may have been exposed to this rhetoric for so long that we are desensitized. In a district where I used to live, large billboards reading "Vote YES on Issue 4—for the Children" were used to promote school funding issues. Abbreviated versions of the same message say simply, "Vote for Children." Having been a school board member, I know that most candidates for that post run on the same platform: They are for the children. And on countless occasions, I have heard superintendents proclaim some version of the following: "I make every decision after first asking myself, 'Is it good for the children?'" One superintendent I worked with mentioned the fact that he was for children at every single one of his speaking engagements. I kept track. No one ever asked what he meant by that, and he never elaborated. Yet, the warm blanket that covered his audiences at each utterance of the phrase was unmistakable.

Only recently have I begun to ask myself, "What's up with all of this 'the children' stuff?" Before, I considered it semi-harmless pap, part of the simplification of postmodern political discourse that seems to stultify reasoned dialogue on almost every issue. Just another few milligrams of the cognitive cholesterol pumped out daily by those who are called leaders.

Perhaps the degradation of informed debate about education is reason enough to be concerned about mantras invoking "the children," but, lately, I've come to think that this repetitive wordplay involves much more than that. So concerned have I become that I'm ready to make a proposal: American education would actually benefit from a season of respite from its focus on "the children." American education is, after all, not about the children. It is about their parents.

Let us consider for a moment the two parties that, by definition, participate in the provision of all goods and services. We can even skip considering whether education is best thought of as a good or a service. It doesn't matter. Either way, there are providers of the goods or services. In our example, that would be schools. So far, so good. Then there are consumers. Children, right? Wrong.

Children are not the consumers of education. Granted, for 13 years they are the ones who get on the buses, occupy the desks, eat the meals served on partitioned trays, and, eventually, have their names appear on the diplomas. But it is their parents who are actually the consumers. This may sound like heresy to some, but probably only those who haven't thought much about what a consumer is.

American education would actually benefit from a respite from its focus on "the children."

A consumer has three key characteristics. First, he or she is a person who has the power to exercise a free choice to purchase a good or service. (Kids: no choice. Parents: lots of choices.) Whether or not they always realize it, parents exercise a choice to send their children to one school or another. They do this by way of decisions about where to buy a home, by selecting a private school over a public school or vice versa, or by opting for some other alternative such as home schooling. Some parents might choose to involve their children in these decisions, especially as the child becomes older, but a parent could never delegate this responsibility to a minor child. Ultimately, parents are held responsible for complying with compulsory-education laws and for ensuring that their children receive an education.

A second characteristic of consumers is that they pay for the product or service they choose. Children don't pay school taxes and tuition, don't purchase books, and so forth. Parents do these things via the payment of taxes on real or personal property that they (not their children) purchase or own, through voluntary contributions, and so on. Parents have legal obligations here, too. Try telling Judge Judy that you didn't pay your taxes because education is "for the children."

The final characteristic of consumers is that they possess the prerogative to evaluate their purchases. In education, parents do this, though sometimes in indirect ways. For example, parents who are satisfied with what they have purchased choose to remain in a public school district, continue to pay tuition at a private school, respond supportively to surveys of satisfaction with schools, pass local bond issues, or vote to retain school board members whom they believe to be responsible for the quality of their purchase.

Conversely, parents who are dissatisfied express their evaluation by moving to another district, enrolling their children in a charter school, opting for private or home schooling, or refusing, when local school election time comes, to approve additional funding (or perhaps by "throwing the bums out"). Children do none of these things. They can't vote; they are not obligated to pay taxes or support schools; and they cannot decide to purchase a home for themselves in a different district.

In short, it's not about the children. Compulsory-education laws exist because a bunch of grown-ups decided that all children should be forced to go to school. Why? Because the parents believed it was good for their children and others; because the parents were willing to obligate themselves to pay for it; and because safeguards were built into the laws so that parents wouldn't be forced to send their children to the same kind of school—ensuring that parents would have choice.

The realization that education is all about parents clears up a lot of things and sheds new light on current educational reforms and rhetoric. To begin with, a recognition that parents are the consumers reveals "the children" as nothing more than another limp political code phrase. Most code phrases are euphemistic attempts to disguise nefarious intent. We are familiar with many of them: "revenue enhancement" is code for tax increase; "fact-finding mission" is code for lobbyist-sponsored junket; "price supports" is code for corporate welfare, and so on.

But "the children" is a different sort of code phrase. It does not mask nefarious intent. It masks no intent at all—or worse, ignorance. All that the phrase "it's for the children" reveals about the utterer is that he or she can't articulate any specific reason for promoting the issue, candidate, or proposed course of action. As a rhetorical device, it's marvelous. Who could be against the children?

A real victory in any election about education would be one in which those who think and speak about education issues—which is to say all of us—managed to get beyond the children. That means getting back to parents.

I suggest a litmus test that would modify only slightly the refrain of the superintendent I cited earlier. My test would be this: Make every decision after first asking, "Is it good for the parents?" Convincing parents of some educational good proposed for their children is a whopper of a job, but will ultimately lead to more widely embraced and more effective education reforms.

The phrase "for the children" is a marvelous rhetorical device. After all, who could be against the children?

To prove this, let's return to the notion of parents as educational consumers. If you want to make something better, more desirable, more valued, or attract a better price, then you make it better for the consumer. Want to charge more for seats on your airline? Guarantee that flights will depart and arrive when scheduled. Want to sell more golf balls? Convince people that your product will make them play like Tiger Woods. Why is a new model of a laptop computer introduced by some manufacturer on an almost- daily basis? Because consumers want a product that is smaller, faster, and more powerful. If, by some quirk, consumers demanded laptops that were larger, slower, and less powerful, then the market would have evolved in an opposite direction and, well, Commodore would probably be a leading supplier.

Perhaps the greatest benefit of viewing parents as consumers would be an elevation of the national and local discourses about education. Even when compared with similar political discussions, our conversations about educational issues are currently outliers. It's time to bring education debates into the mainstream or, even better, to the forefront.

Consider, for example, how local conversations about such mundane matters as whether a new shopping mall should be built are framed. Politician A, who argues for such a move, might note that the new development would "pump $1.3 million into the local economy, create 372 new jobs, generate $3.7 million in new tax revenues over five years," and so on. Politician B, who opposes the development, might counter with the observation that "the development will spoil 450 acres of wetlands, displace 23 existing local businesses, and create a 37 percent increase in traffic." Assuming that the facts of both sides are not in dispute, there would at least be facts for voters to consider. A citizen who believed that new jobs are needed might vote for Politician A; the citizen who supported wetlands preservation might vote for Politician B.

The situation is not the same on local education issues, where Politicians A and B are both for the children. A really deep education conversation, then, is one in which both of them agree that they support "high standards of excellence that will ensure we are competitive in the global economy of the new information age," whatever that means. Even at the national level, contrasting candidates' specific, detailed proposals regarding, for example, prescription- drug coverage for senior citizens with their comparatively vague proposals on education is instructive.

If the focus were shifted to consumers, things would be different. You can't fool parents.

Before the next election, forgetting about "the children" and asking "Is it good for the parents?" might be the best thing for American education.

What would it be like, for example, if candidates actually talked about the specific ways in which the education system would be improved under their leadership? What if school- related proposals were promoted and supported by details parents could analyze, not merely by assurances that they were "for the children"?

I am imagining school officials' proposing a tax increase and telling parents that, if approved, the additional funding would enable the dropout rate to fall from 33 percent to 25 percent over three years. Politicians who would debate, say, two proposals—one a curriculum change and one additional staffing—to raise the level of performance in reading for elementary school students, so that 90 percent would be able to pass a state-mandated reading test by the end of 4th grade. Consumers—that is, parents—could actually keep an eye on these things. If the quality of the goods or services didn't change, the elected officials or school leaders probably would.

The choice seems to me to be obvious. More cognitive cholesterol vs. constructive debates on education issues. Ill-specified, amorphous proposals for "accountability" vs. detailed positions outlining specific policies and expected results. Continued casting of what is arguably the most important political issue—education—in terms of "the children" vs. reconstituting the process so that the real consumers of education are empowered to more fully engage in the matters that hold the highest national and local priority.

In short, forgetting about the children might just be the best thing that could happen to American education before the next election.

Gregory J. Cizek is an associate professor of educational measurement and evaluation at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Vol. 20, Issue 14, Pages 35-36

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