Few areas of the law involve a more poignant clash of interests than disputes between parents and the state concerning children's education.1 On the one hand are the parents, who love their children, know them well, and pursue what they think is best for them. On the other hand are the larger community and the state,2 both of which may have differing views about children's welfare than the children's parents, and who must prepare children to become good citizens of the polity.3 Between them are the children themselves, whose interests are not self-explanatory, but instead are often contestable, controversial, and in need of interpretation.
In recent issues of the Journal of Law and Education, two different authors, Tara Dahl and Kathleen Conn, address these difficult disputes. In the first of these pieces, Surveys in America's Classrooms: How Much Do Parents Really Know?, Tara Dahl argues for a broad understanding of parents' rights to control their children's education.4 Dahl objects to a recent Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals decision, Fields v. Palmdale School District,5 which rejected a parental challenge to a survey administered to children in public school, on the ground that it too narrowly circumscribes parents' authority over their children.6 Dahl likens parents' authority over their children in public schools to their authority when they leave a child with a babysitter or a summer camp.7 Parents who leave their children in the hands of others, she argues, "[are] temporarily yielding authority over the child to the babysitter while maintaining the ability to give instructions regarding the care of the child."8 This same doctrine of in loco parentis, she insists, should apply when parents leave their children at school.9 Dahl contends that courts err when they hold that the state has any independent authority to make decisions on behalf of children, except where the intrusion on a parent's authority over their children is negligible.10
In a recent counterpoint to Dahl's article, Kathleen Conn takes a very different stance regarding parents' authority over their children's education. In Parents' Right to Direct Their Children's Education and Student Sex Surveys,11 Conn argues for a broad view of schools' rights to direct children's education. She contends that "[d]eciding what information students need ... is the prerogative of school boards, not of the parents or courts."12 In Conn's view, parents may choose to which school they send their children, but schools have the rights to determine their own curriculum and to do so in the manner they determine to be appropriate.13 Based on this principle, Conn argues, the Fields decision was correctly decided.14
This counterpoint argues that the balance of interests at stake regarding young citizens' education is both more significant and more complex than either Dahl or Conn portrays it. Contrary to Dahl's argument, as a practical matter, public schools could not function if they were forced at every turn to implement parents' views about how their own children should be educated. Further, as a normative matter, the state should do more than simply cede to parents' views of their children's interests. The state is properly charged with ensuring that children receive civic education and that they develop their own autonomy, even over parents' objections. Further, since children are members of the polity as well as their families, the state is entitled to assert its own views about the education that best furthers children's welfare.
Contrary to Conn's argument, however, the state's authority to decide what and how to teach children should not be absolute and impervious to all but political challenges. Parents' opinions about what is in their children's interests should be given considerable weight, even when these opinions relate to issues beyond the schoolhouse door. This does not mean that parents' views on their children's education should automatically trump the school's views, but neither should the reverse be the case. …