The actual content of his remarks notwithstanding, a number of schools will not show President Obama's speech--while other schools will let parents "excuse" their children from Obama's address--because of a strong parental backlash last week. Parents across the nation voiced concern about the speech "serving as a direct channel from the President of the United States to [their] child[ren]," derided the address as "Marxist propaganda," and complained that they had not consented to exposing their children to the President's message. Such parental complaints are the height of silliness. The notion that Obama had some secret political message hidden in his back-to-school speech is laughable, as is the notion that schools should seek parents' permission before exposing children to such controversial figures as...um, the President of the United States. (In fairness, Congressional Democrats were just as silly in 1991 when they objected to the use of taxpayer money to fund a similar speech by the first President Bush). But the hysteria brought about by Obama's speech has already been covered ad nauseum across the blogosphere, and I won't revisit that well-tread ground any further here.
The firestorm Obama's speech touched off goes to a much bigger--and far more interesting--issue than whether the President is a closet Marxist. Many parents who choose to send their kids to public school believe that they retain some semblance of control over their children's education. Parents expect to be consulted when schools touch upon controversial subjects like sex, drugs, or even evolution. But there's a tension here: public schools have a right--and a responsibility--to mold children into individuals that can function as intelligent, well-adjusted, and well-informed participants in American society and American democracy. The question is: when does the state's interest in molding good citizens trump parental rights in their children's upbringing?
When both schools and parents insist upon their respective rights, parents sometimes sue, and these questions are kicked to the judiciary. Sometimes courts side with parents: a 1972 Supreme Court decision, for example, held the state could not require that Amish students attend secondary school against their parents' wishes. Other decisions hold that the state's interest in societal engineering trumps parental rights. In 1987, for example, a group of Christian parents in Tennessee brought suit against their local school district, demanding that their children be excused from parts of the school curriculum that they deemed offensive. Among other things, the parents objected to their children using a standard Holt reader that featured passages about a space mission to Mars ("futuristic supernaturalism," the plaitiffs claimed) and a story that allegedly encouraged children to use the "occult practice" of imagining things that were "beyond scriptural authority." Citing the school district's right to teach "fundamental values essential to a democratic society," the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals held that, in the name of pluralism, public schools could insist that children be exposed to practices and beliefs their parents found abhorrant.
But most conflicts between parents and schools never make it into the courts. It's far easier for schools to let parents "excuse" their children from any activities they find offensive--whether it's sex education or listening to a Presidential address. To some degree, this makes sense: after all, schools are ultimately controlled by local government and parents are ultimately voters, so why should schools start an unnecessary or politically divisive fight?
To my mind, though, there are some battles that school districts should fight with parents. And while Obama's speech is probably not going to be a life-changing experience for many children, it offers lessons that are far too important to be trumped by parental control. First, it is critical that Americans grow up with a set of shared facts and understandings about our politics, our history, and our government. Americans are already too politically divided, and the factionalization of the news media (with conservatives tuning into FOX and liberals frequenting the Huffington Post) only exacerbates our divisions. Public schools are one of the last places where Americans from different backgrounds and viewpoints come together and are exposed to similar content and experiences; they are one of the last institutions that ensure Americans share a "foundation of good citizenship." Thus, schools should strive to provide their students with clean and unadulterated access to news and to the inner workings of government. For that reason, a school's choice to expose kids to any speech by a prominent national, state, or local politician should usually fall beyond the boundaries of parental rights of objection.
Furthermore, it's important that students learn how to actively engage in political discourse and to respect their opponents. If a child's parent wants to hyperbolically call a politician a "Marxist dictator," or a "fascist" or whatever, fine--but public schools should also have the right to teach a child how to respectfully listen to that politician's platform and offer respectful counterpoints. Our democracy could be seriously harmed if parents can prohibit schools from exposing students to viewpoints that differ from those they hear at home.
It is not always easy to define the precise contours of parental rights, particularly when they clash with public schools' responsibility to help mold future citizens. But exposing students to a speech by a sitting President seems to fall well within the purview of schools' charge of ensuring that students can fully and effectively contribute to American democracy.