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Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Parental responsibility and the blame game

Last weekend, the New York Times published a piece by Thomas Friedman called, “How About Better Parents?” In it, he argued that it was time to acknowledge that not just teachers, but parents play an enormous role in the educational success of their children. “Parents more focused on their children’s education can also make a huge difference in a student’s achievement.”

That should be an utterly non-controversial statement. In fact, it ought to be so obvious that it doesn’t even need to be said. And yet it fills me with dread. I have a sick sense where this is going.

Here’s my prediction - and god knows I hope I’m wrong. In the not-too-distant future we’re going to hear voices on the Republican right morph Friedman’s innocuous argument into something like this: “The reason poor, minority kids are failing in school is that their parents simply don’t care. They expect the nanny state to do everything for their kids while they keep on having out-of-wedlock children they can’t afford and they don’t care for. They treat public education like a taxpayer-funded babysitter so they don’t have to do an honest day’s work. It’s time to stop soaking the taxpayers for additional funding for programs for kids whose parents don’t give a damn. Only when we end those entitlements will these people be forced to take responsibility for their children. And maybe then all those illegals will stop coming over here expecting their kids to get a free ride in our schools.”

Read the comments on most online news articles dealing with education reform, and that’s what the yahoos are saying already. It’s only a matter of time before it perks up to the mainstream. And it won’t be long before that drumbeat becomes so steady that the whole conversation has shifted waaaay to the right, and Democrats, afraid of being called socialists for their support of equitable school funding, will start marching to that beat, too.

Remember welfare reform? The notion of a “culture of poverty” created by a cushy free ride on welfare became so entrenched in the national discussion that the social safety net wound up being dismantled, not under a Republican, but under a Democrat - Bill Clinton. Both sides agreed it was a fine thing, too, at least, as long as the economy was humming along and unemployment was low. But take a look around now; the picture looks quite different in a down economy.

Education reform is going to be just the same way. We’re going to start hearing about a “culture of failure” blamed on the laziness of parents who don’t love their kids enough to educate them properly. There will be strong undertones of racism playing on stereotypes of unmarried, inner-city, minority mothers churning out babies - despite the fact that schools in poor, white rural areas are struggling, too. The end result of all the self-righteous finger-pointing will be a defunding of programs designed to provide additional educational support to low-income students. It’ll probably take a while for the adverse effects to become severe enough to be widely acknowledged - educational change is generally incremental in either direction. But by then, lower levels of education funding for the poor will have become the new normal, and we’ll just throw up our hands because, oh dear, the poor are always with us.

So that’s my prediction. “Parents should do more to help their kids’ education” will become, “Parents are to blame for their kids’ educational failure ”  which will become, “It’s time to end education handouts for the kids of lazy, uncaring parents.” From a moderate, realistic, limited statement springs an extreme, ideologically driven polemic.

I sure hope I’m wrong. But I’m probably not.

EDITED TO ADD: Bonus prediction:  If "parental-responsibility" education reform becomes the next big thing, there will be an egregious double standard. In poor, minority areas, there will be programs to address parental neglect. But rich white parents who exercise no oversight while lavishing their kids with enough money and cars to get into all kinds of trouble will get a big, fat free pass.

EDITED AGAIN TO ADD: I swear, I did not see this piece before I wrote the above. Yup, it's already begun. It's by right-wing education analyst Mike Petrilli, who laments "the 'good parenting gap' between rich and poor families" and prescribes a "marriage renaissance, especially for poor and working class families."  Because of course the way to promote social stability is not to address poverty and racism directly, but to teach the underclass a little good old-fashioned Christian morality. *headdesk*