Friday, August 2, 2013

Aaron Osmond's Practical (read: Illogical) Argument for Ending Compulsory Education in Utah

+Aaron Osmond, a Utah republican state senator from South Jordan, asserted in a recent posting on the Utah State Senate blog (which has, curiously, disappeared from the web) that the state of Utah should end its requirement for children to attend mandatory schooling.  Osmond's argument is centered on two main premises:
(a) The United States is a country founded on the principles of personal freedom and unalienable rights;" consequently, "no parent should be forced by the government to send their child to school" (direct quote from the original blog post).   
(b) Parents have failed to take responsibility for and engage in their children's education, and the current requirement forces schools and teachers to become "surrogate parents, expected to do everything. . . . Some parents act as if the responsibility to educate . . . is primarily the responsibility of the public school system" (blog post).

While Osmond's two observations (i.e. that the US was founded upon personal freedom and that parents often don't take enough responsibility for supporting their children's education) are accurate, his logic is flawed at best and absent at worst.

First, in what is likely an act of deference to ultra conservative members of his party (as well as the Utah Eagle Forum, which seems to have as much control over Republican lawmakers as nearly any single individual or organization, even more than the LDS Church), Osmond selectively applies the worn-out "personal liberty" argument to promote a narrow political agenda.  The basis of this argument seems to be that because the US was founded upon principles of "unalienable rights," parents should have free license to make any and all decisions regarding their children's lives.  However, Osmond and his colleagues don't allow political opponents to use the same logic (personal freedom = parents can do whatever they want) in other aspects of parenting (e.g. taking their children to a restaurant that serves liquor in plain sight).  He can't selectively apply the personal freedom argument in some contexts, but not others.  Additionally, this line of logic is incredibly naive for someone claiming to be a lawmaker.  The basic premise of the law-making process is that governments limit some freedoms in order to promote the general welfare of its citizenry.

Second, Utah is already incredibly friendly toward parent choice in education, providing a number of home and charter school options.  In fact, for those parents who choose the home-school route, there is no mandatory testing or curriculum inspection--all they need to do is sign an affidavit committing to teach the same subjects as public schools and for the same amount of time.  In my opinion this already borders on negligence and couldn't be much more parent-choice friendly.  There doesn't seem to be much wrong with the current system in terms of providing parents with freedom to make choices about their children's education.

Third, although most parents could do more to be involved in their kids' learning (and some could do much more), making school "optional" isn't likely to help things.  Salt Lake City School Board member Michael Clara put it most succinctly "the cure would be worse than the disease."  Imagine what an already disengaged parent would do if his kids weren't forced to go to school?  Exactly.  He'd do nothing.  How is that better?

Finally, and most importantly, education is a public good.  So, while a parent should have some choice in how, when, or where her child is educated, she should not have the choice of whether her son or daughter receives an education because all of her neighbors (both present and future) need that son or daughter to be educated.  State and local governments (and, increasingly, the federal government) are concerned about and involved in influencing educational issues because having an educated citizenry is essential for a democracy to function.  So, ultimately, education is a means to enabling the very freedoms Osmond supports.

Because Osmond has seemed relatively intelligent in the past, I'm going to give him the benefit of the doubt and believe that he hasn't somehow become stupider over the last few months.  Rather, I think he's probably been influenced by big players in Utah politics.  Regardless, his thinking that education could or should be made optional is flawed.

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