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Since their creation a century and a half ago, the free, common schools have rarely been free of controversy and often have been objects of parental suspicion and distrust. Battles over the state's authority to require communities to establish public schools and compel children to attend them raged across the land during the first half of the 19th century. Angry opponents argued that education was not a proper function of government and that it was an intrusion into the domain of parents. They feared the secularizing influence of schools that were largely expected to provide religious and moral instruction. And they objected to paying higher taxes to finance education.

As three of this month's feature stories indicate, these issues remain with us; many parents still distrust public schools. In the most extreme example, "Whose Kids Are They, Anyway?,'' Drew Lindsay writes about a growing parents' rights movement that is challenging public schools in courts and statehouses across the country. The movement is "fueled by shocking--often dubious--stories of schools passing out condoms like candy, levitating and hypnotizing kids, and disrupting households with Gestapo-like investigations thinly disguised as abuse inquiries.''

Parents' rights advocates are lobbying state legislatures and working for passage of the Parental Rights and Responsibilities Act in the U.S. Congress--a bill that opponents argue could give parents authority to dictate curriculum, set graduation requirements, and choose the books that students use.

Instead of fighting to change public schools, an increasing number of parentsare simply refusing to enroll their children in them. Estimates of the number of young people being educated at home range from 500,000 to 1 million. The reasons parents keep their children out of public school vary, but one that nearly all share is the belief that schooling at home will be far better for them than attending "government'' schools.

In "Homegrown Learning,'' David Hill writes about a small community in Northern California with a disproportionately high percentage of homeschoolers, where the public school district has made extraordinary efforts to accommodate dissatisfied parents and win their trust. The district has created a home study program that combines homeschooling with regular classroom instruction several days a week. The superintendent, expressing an unusually enlightened point of view, says simply: "We've got a lot of variety in this area, so our school district has an amazing range of points of views, lifestyles, and expectations. Which makes things like the home study program critical. You couldn't serve this community properly without that kind of option.''

Even when schools try to improve with new pedagogies and new teaching strategies, they get into trouble. In "Unconventional Wisdom,'' Debra Viadero profiles prominent African-American researcher and author Lisa Delpit, who "is best known for the philosophical bombs she has lobbed at some of contemporary education's most sacred cows.'' In short, she has charged that many of the public schools' more progressive programs can be harmful to poor and minority children. These programs may work for some students, perhaps most, Delpit says, but they don't work for everybody.

It would be easy--and perhaps justifiable in some cases--to dismiss these critics as fringe groups who want public schools remade in their own image. But these vocal critics may be only the tip of the iceberg if opinion surveys are to be believed. Many parents are uneasy about their schools and wish they were better but don't know what to do. That fact, along with parents' prolonged and persistent doubts about schools, should give us pause. If nothing else, it should prompt educators and policymakers to ask what it is about public education that generates such distrust.

For much of its history, public education has made few allowances for individual differences. Government bureaucracies rarely do; as a matter of policy, they aspire to treat everyone the same way. Faced with the subtle and complex challenge of opening young minds and coping with enormous personal diversity, public schools too often have treated all children in the same way. "The difficulty,'' writes Lisa Delpit, "is that all children don't have exactly the same needs.''

--Ronald A. Wolk

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