Role of Parents at SVS
Mon, 25 Nov 1996 09:53:25 -0500

Dale Reed requested this posting.
Dale- You have permission to post this to the Separation of School and State

The Role of Parents at Sudbury Valley School

by Daniel Greenberg

One of the most difficult issues to deal with since the founding of Sudbury
Valley in 1968 has been the relationship between the school and the parents
of students enrolled in the school. Although a great deal of discussion on
this topic has taken place over the years, and many cogent arguments have
been put forth supporting a variety of differing views, I would like here to
offer a different perspective on the problem, one that goes back to some
fundamental social principles.
My starting point is a consideration of one of the most hotly argued
question in our society today -- namely, "Who is responsible for educating
our children?" By "educating" I mean the common understanding of the term:
preparing for a productive life as adults. I would like to discuss several
different answers to this question, each of which has different implications
vis-a-vis the problem we are discussing.
According to the system of government established in the United States under
our Constitution, there is one and only one primary answer by law: each
State, separately, has the power and the authority to determine how the
children growing up within its boundaries will be educated. Education does
not lie in the domain of the Federal Government (except insofar as Washington
has been able to insinuate itself into the picture -- but that is a wholly
different story); nor does it belong to local government at the county, town,
or city level. It is the primary interest of State Government, under the
theory that the State occupies a privileged position in assuring its own
continuity, the welfare of its citizens, and the welfare of its polity.
The reality, then, is that there is no arguing with State supremacy, until
such time (should it ever come) as various State Constitutions are amended to
relieve the State of responsibility for educating children. It is under this
Constitutionally recognized authority that State Legislatures regulate
whatever details they want to concerning schools, and State Departments of
Education administer the laws passed by the Legislature. In fact, states
differ widely in the way they carry out this responsibility, with the highly
beneficial result that a wide variety of different educational systems and
philosophies co-exist in this country at the present time.
Tax-supported public schools are the most direct manifestation of
state-regulated education. The place of parents in these schools is
something that is determined by those in charge of public education. Again,
different regional and local authorities have devised all sorts of schemes
relating to parents, from absolute exclusion (because parents are seen to
interfere with the pedagogical processes demanded by the State) to intense
participation (where parents are seen as essential partners in those same
pedagogical processes). However, no matter what the role of parents in
public schools may be at any given time in any given place, that role is
assumed wholly at the pleasure of the governmental authorities, and not by
the assertion of any inherent right or privilege. Indeed, the very same
public school system may well adopt varied and contradictory stances relative
to parents in the schools at different times, depending on who is in charge,
what pedagogical theories prevail, and what budgetary constraints may
restrict the use of professional educators.
The state, however, is not the only contender for dominance over the
education of children. A second major contender is the family, in particular
as represented by the parents. There are many people who firmly believe that
the primary responsibility for preparing children to become effective adults
in society lies with the home. (There is even a political movement afoot in
this country today, under the banner "Separation of School and State", that
hopes to bring about the Constitutional changes needed to make this view
prevail.) There is a long history of a category of private schools organized
as parent co-ops, where parents are, one way or another, directly involved
with, and responsible for, the schools their children attend. Such schools
must, of course, fall under the overall jurisdiction of the States in which
they are located; as a result, the degree of latitude they have in dealing
with educational matters depends critically on the tolerance for variation
shown by State authorities.
In recent decades, many people who believe that the family should play the
key role in education have adopted a more individual path, generically
referred to as "home schooling", a method of education in which primary
responsibility for children's education is assumed directly by their homes --
again, of course, subject to whatever restrictions the various State
authorities impose. Within the range of tolerance allowed by the State, for
homeschoolers the power to decide resides in the parents, and precisely what
limits are set depends on the degree of sufferance allowed by the parents.
This is true whether the situation is one of strict adherence to a highly
disciplined curriculum, or one of great freedom ("unschooling").
The assumption by parents of responsibility for educating their children
raises some very complex issues, most of which center around the distinction
between child rearing and education. No one contests the primacy of parents
in the domain of child rearing. (Again, the State reserves the authority to
intervene in situations where it deems the parents to be incompetent to rear
their children, and that is a very sticky issue; but incompetence aside, the
State has no interest or authority.)
The essence of child rearing is nurturing and caring for creatures who are
inherently dependent on adult assistance for survival, and providing them
with the appropriate instruments to survive. Child rearing involves the
classic needs of food, shelter and clothing, as well as needs which have been
more explicitly recognized this century, such as love, attention, and
support. Child rearing also involves acculturation, most particularly
through constant exposure of the child to the surrounding family and
neighboring society. Parents and home are the immediate instruments of
acculturation, and contribute to it to a certain extent by explicit
instruction; but for the most part, they perform their role through modeling,
and children become acculturated by observing the behavior and beliefs of
those with whom they are in regular contact.
Child rearing does not have an agenda or goal, other than to assure that the
child will grow up physically and mentally healthy, and capable eventually of
identifying his/her own needs. Successful child rearing is based on
universal concepts, which derive from the our best understanding of human
nature and child development. People who differ in their philosophical and
practical approaches to child-rearing do so on the basis of differences in
their models of human behavior.
Education, on the other hand, is closely related to the specifics of the
socio-economic situation into which children are growing up. Becoming
effective adults involves identifying the ways in which society at a given
place and at a given point in history absorbs and utilizes adult energies and
talents. All sorts of people may or may not be good at understanding
society's needs, or conveying them to children. Lots of parents do poorly at
this, and lots of people who have never had children do well at it. In
particular, in times when society is undergoing rapid and unpredictable
transformations, it often happens that adults in general are poorer at
grasping how the culture is evolving than are the children who grow up in the
midst of the tumultuous changes.
Bearing all this in mind, it is clear that parents who assert primary
responsibility for the education of their children take on a very delicate
task. They must be constantly aware of the danger of confusing education and
child rearing. In this connection, they must also be aware of the
psychological ramifications of conflating these two functions. Because
parents are the essential child-rearers, the initial state of dependency that
children undergo relative to parents cannot be avoided; nor can the lifelong
consequences of this initial state of dependency be brushed aside. No matter
what our age, we maintain a special and differentiated stance towards our
parents, that is inherently dissimilar to our stance towards any other adults
in our lives. However our parents may wish this wasn't so (or however much
we may wish this wasn't so relative to our own children), it nevertheless is
so, and there is no escaping it. Consequently, whatever wishes parents may
have in this connection, they must understand that the special psychological
relationship between them and their children will color everything they do,
including every activity in the domain of education. There is no way of
freeing oneself from this relationship, however "free" one wishes one's
children to be.
The third (and only remaining) contenders for primary responsibility over
the education of children are the children themselves. This is, historically
speaking, an innovation, at least as an explicitly formulated right. Sudbury
Valley, and other schools based on similar principles, embody the notion that
this right is due to children and inheres in them, rather than in the State
or the family. (Of course, in the present legal situation in this country,
schools such as ours can only function by sufferance of the State, just as is
the case with home schooling.)
Now, it is not my purpose here to argue for the superiority of an education
determined solely through the will of the client, over other forms of
education. Such arguments abound in the vast literature about Sudbury-model
schools, and counter-arguments fill the pages of educational literature. I
merely want to point out that our schools, by their very nature, represent
this view. For each of these schools, this is not a matter of debate.
Anyone who feels that someone other than the child him/herself should be
responsible for his/her education should send their child to another kind of
school. The only way it makes sense to send a child to our type of school is
by accepting the underlying premise of the school -- namely, that the child's
education will be his/her sole responsibility.
Similarly, this view entails as a direct consequence the result that the
community which constitutes the school will decide for itself how it is to be
run on a day to day basis. Hence the School Meeting. And hence the very
natural result that the question of whether, or how, this or that parent or
parents will be welcome at the school, and for what purpose and duration, is
a question that is entirely within the purview of the School Meeting (i.e.,
of the community). This is no more arguable than the basic premise of the
school, from which it follows. Parents not willing to accept this are in the
wrong school. Currently, at Sudbury Valley, the School Meeting has decided
that parents are welcome on campus for occasional casual visits that do not
interfere with the flow of events at school, but that parents who wish to be
present on campus for longer or more regular periods can be granted this
privilege only in such specific manner as the School Meeting establishes, or
through one of the Committees, Corporations, or Clerks given jurisdiction in
such matters by the School Meeting.
It is not, therefore, meaningful to say that parents are, or are not,
"welcome" to spend time at our kind of school. Some are, some aren't; some
are under special circumstances, some aren't under any circumstances. It all
depends on the will of the community, expressed at the time the particular
question is posed. And indeed, if you examine the practices of the various
schools of the Sudbury-model type, you will find considerable variety in
parental involvement at different schools, and at different times. Which is
just as it should be.
Of course, parents are free to try to convince the community that they
should be given wider access than they enjoy, or other privileges that they
do not currently have. The School Meeting openly debates all issues brought
before it, and this one comes up regularly, and is heard about from all
sides. This too is as it should be. But the central point is that in our
kind of school, the only people who participate by right are the students;
all others come on board as a result of the free choice made by the school
One last word, concerning our institution of the Assembly, which is a broad
policy-making body that does, in fact, include all parents. Why, one may
ask, were parents inserted into the picture at the Assembly level, if the
daily running of the school is beyond their purview? The answer lies in the
old American slogan, "No taxation without representation." So long as our
school is a tuition-supported private school, where the reality is that in
the overwhelming majority of cases the parents foot the bill for their
children's education, we do not feel that excluding parents from fiscal
decisions (and other broad decisions related to those ) would be in harmony
with the democratic principles we espouse.
If the school is some day financed in some other way, I am sure the
constitution of the Assembly will become a matter of intense discussion.