The heart of the conflict – The Natural Right of the Parent to Control their Children’s Upbringing vs. State Power

Currently, almost all students in Indiana go to public school kindergarten. But, parents have a choice to delay formal education until age 7.

There are people who want to take that right away from parents. If the compulsory school age is lowered, all 5 and 6-year-old children will be forced to begin formal education at age 5, even if their parents think they are not developmentally ready.

In the history of compulsory schooling, there has long been a struggle between parents and the state. Parents have a natural right to control their children’s upbringing, but the state uses the legal doctrine of “parens patriae” to “do what is necessary to protect the child’s welfare, even if such actions diminish parental control.”

We take compulsory schooling for granted, but it was not always this way. Thomas Jefferson said,

“It is better to tolerate the rare instance of a parent refusing to let his child be educated, than to shock the common feelings and ideas by the forcible asportation and education of the infant against the will of the father.”

This sounds like such a radical statement to modern ears, doesn’t it? But now we have had compulsory schooling for so long that we assume it must be kept. It’s a slippery slope to keep pushing the kids into formal school younger and younger, stripping away parental rights to raise and educate our own children. 

The time to fight against a proposed educational change is now, before the change has been declared law. Before the change has become part of our society as “the way it is.” When states have done things such as banning private schools, banning the teaching of foreign languages in public schools, forced Amish people to attend school after 8th grade (contrary to their religious beliefs), and made it compulsory to salute a flag, then parents have had to go to court to fight for their rights.

The lowest compulsory school age in Indiana is 7, and it has been 7 for a very long time. It’s not logical to link starting school at age 7 to a poorer educational outcome, when the compulsory school age has remained 7 for such a very long time. This is an expansion of government reach.

When government seeks to expand its reach, an attentive population should question whether the government has the authority to do so. Thus, the important question here becomes: What is the state authority for expanding the compulsory school age?

 “[N]o legislator should promote the expansion of state-compelled school attendance ages unless…such an expansion of compulsory school age by the state is consistent with the state’s constitution and the spirit and history of freedom of choice in his or her state.”[i]

Those advocating for lowering the compulsory school age must show that there is state authority to do so.

Compelling every 5 and 6-year-old to begin school, even if it results in what a parent considers to be harm to the child

If the state takes away the parental right to delay formal school until age 7, the state is effectively saying that every 5 and 6-year-old must be in school. They are compelling every 5 and 6-year-old to begin school, even if it results in what a parent considers to be harmful to the child.

Almost all children in Indiana begin school at age 5, and almost all of them do so in public school. The children who are not beginning school at age 5 have parents who chose not to have them begin. If the state takes away the parental right to delay school, the state is saying that it knows better than those parents do about their own 5-year-old child. 

“Just a couple of years ago, “House Education Committee Chairman Robert Behning (R-Indianapolis) said the issue was not a big deal due to state data showing a high rate of kindergarten attendance.”

What would cause the state, or really anyone, to suddenly say that a government bureaucracy is in the best position to decide, over the protest of parents, what is in the educational interest of an individual 5-year-old child?

One stated reason uses the existence of the My Way Pre-K program. Now that we have public school Pre-K offered through the state, the state doesn’t want parents using Pre-K and then taking time off before starting Kindergarten.

“McCormick says lowering the compulsory school age from 7 to 6 would benefit the same at-risk children the state wants to help with its limited My Way Pre-K program. ‘So those are the very kids that we’re trying to target for pre-K that we would like to see that continuation through kindergarten,’ she says.”

First, no evidence is offered to support that it is at-risk children who are not attending kindergarten at age 5. Is it better, on average, to begin formal school at an older or younger age? There are studies that support both sides of the debate, but the consensus is that there is a small benefit to entering school at an older age.

“In sum, over and above experiences at home and in child care, the age that children entered school showed some modest relation to school achievement, especially growth in achievement, with children who entered school at an older age progressing faster than children who started school at a somewhat younger age…”

Secondly, there is no evidence offered to support that starting school at age 5 will help any children, let alone at-risk children. Public-school Pre-K is offered to low-income families. The choice to delay entrance to kindergarten (called “redshirting)” for a child is overwhelmingly a choice made by affluent households, because they are the ones who can afford an extra year of childcare, or can afford to have one parent stay home from the workforce to raise children.

“Redshirting is nearly twice as prevalent in schools serving affluent student bodies as it is among those whose mean household income was close to the poverty line. This finding is not too surprising, given that the choice to redshirt may mean sending your child to preschool or daycare one additional year before kindergarten, which could be financially prohibitive among some low-income families.”

The evidence shows that lowering the compulsory school age would overwhelmingly affect affluent families, the exact opposite of those who are targeted by Indiana’s My Way Pre-K program.

Who is in the best position to determine what kind of help a 5-year-old child needs? A blanket statute that affects every 5 and 6-year-old child in the state of Indiana, without regard to individual variation and development, or the parent of that child?

 

Forcing Educational Conformity, Regardless of Outcome

Lowering the compulsory school age in Indiana is unpopular among Hoosiers. The IndyStar reports, “Lawmakers have previously sought to lower the age at which parents are required to start educating their kids, but to no avail. Now, though, those lawmakers have an important voice on their side. ‘Indiana just doesn’t like that conversation,’ said State Superintendent Jennifer McCormick. ‘But there are some legislators that do.’”

Again, if the compulsory school age is lowered, it forces an educational conformity that disregards the needs of very young children. Hoosiers have protested lowering the compulsory school age in the past. Now, we have advocates who want to force a change that is unpopular. It should give all of us pause to see anyone advocating for the trampling of dissent.

“Probably no deeper division of our people could proceed from any provocation than from finding it necessary to choose whose program public educational officials shall compel youth to unite in embracing… Those who begin coercive elimination of dissent soon find themselves exterminating dissenters. Compulsory unification of opinion achieves only the unanimity of the graveyard.” West Virginia State Board of Education v. Barnette (1943).

Those pushing Hoosiers to lower the compulsory school age say they are doing it to “help.” I hearken back to Ronald Reagan’s old quote, “The nine most terrifying words in the English language are: I’m from the government and I’m here to help.” 

It should be concerning to all Hoosiers that our Superintendent is pushing an educational agenda that Hoosiers have rejected time and again.

 

[i] Ray, Brian D. (2009). Is there any solid evidence for expanding compulsory school age? Salem, OR: National Home Education Research Institute.
IAHE Action is a 501c4 organization. Donations are not tax deductible. IAHE Action is funded by the generosity of our donors.

Lisa Yankey is a happy homeschooling mom of three, but she never expected to homeschool. Teaching runs in her blood – she is a former public school teacher, and her mother, father, and brother are all former public school teachers. During her childhood and as a teacher herself, she recognized many issues in public school. She went to law school at night in a long-term plan to help improve public schools. She used to believe that every child could receive a good and appropriate education from public school. She realized the error of this belief when she watched her own child suffering in public school. She began homeschooling shortly after her oldest child had a disastrous start to public school first grade, and she has never looked back.

Lisa serves as a member of the IAHE Action Government Affairs team. She kept her career as a part-time attorney and works for herself as a sole practitioner, with a practice area in immigration law. She is known particularly for her representation of victims of domestic abuse. She continues teaching adults as a speaker on immigration law at continuing legal education events for fellow lawyers. Lisa resides in Noblesville, Indiana (Hamilton County). with her husband, three children, two dogs, and a cat. 

What Do You Mean Kindergarten Isn’t Mandatory in Indiana?

Kindergarten isn’t mandatory in Indiana, but almost all children in Indiana already begin kindergarten at age 5. It is so common to start school at age 5 that most people assume that kindergarten is mandatory when a child is eligible.

Indiana educators are now pushing to lower the compulsory school age to 5. (It’s also being called “mandatory kindergarten,” but that’s a bit of a misnomer because most children who do not enter school at age 5 do not skip kindergarten; they just start kindergarten at a later age).

Currently, children in Indiana must begin school at age 7. The compulsory school age was set at age 7 for a reason, and lowering it now will not result in any educational improvement. Right now, parents can decide if their under-age-7 children are ready for school. If the compulsory school age is lowered, parents will no longer have that right.

“To a man with a hammer, everything looks like a nail.” – Mark Twain

You’ve probably heard variations of the above quote. I was reminded of it again and again during the years I was a public-school teacher. The quote refers to something that’s also called the law of the instrument. This truism states that there is a natural human tendency to be over-dependent on their narrow skill-sets and resources. In other words, if you’re used to using a particular tool, you’ll use it to solve any problem, even if another solution would be much better. That’s what happens in education time after time. 

The hammer of the public-school system is wielded as the sole tool of education.

That hammer has been in use for a hundred years, and for a while the people even largely forgot that there was any other way to become educated.

Comments and Actions Reflect a Strong Bias Against Parents and Parental Rights

Proponents of lowering the compulsory school age have a tool – the public-school system – and they view it as the only correct way to educate a child. They act shocked (“appalled”) that children are not already required to attend a brick-and-mortar school at age 5. Some of the comments made by those pushing this bill are disturbingly anti-parent.

“McCormick said the state needs to send a strong message that kids need to be in some sort of structured educational environment by the time they’re 5 years old.”

No evidence is offered for placing a child in a structured educational environment by the time they’re 5. As I will detail later, on the balance studies do not show a need for structured, formal education at age 5, and in fact there are many studies showing that structure can be harmful in early childhood development.

Exactly what do proponents of lowering the compulsory school age view as a “structured educational environment?” I doubt most home school kindergarten environments would qualify in the eyes of those who wield the hammer of the institution of public school. Many homeschooling parents make a distinction between “homeschool” and “school at home,” and intentionally avoid the latter.

Despite thousands of years of homeschool tradition, and hundreds in our nation, parents are no longer trusted with their natural ability to educate their own child – even parents of 4-to-5-year-old children. Comments from proponents of lowering the compulsory school age reveal their ignorance, dismissal, or contempt for the parent’s right and ability to educate their child.

It turns out that the evidence supports thousands of years of tradition – children who are with their parents and caregivers are better off.

“[C]ontrolled for child functioning prior to school entry, child gender, and measures of family and child care experiences through the first 4.5 years of life before we assessed the impact of entry age on child development….greater maternal sensitivity and greater child care quality predict better social and academic functioning in the early elementary school years;”

Who is in the best position to decide their child’s educational pathway? The parent.

But, against best evidence and tradition, the proponents of lowering the compulsory school age are ready to step in and force parents to put their child in school at a lower age. If your child’s educational model doesn’t fit into their view of what is correct, they’re willing to hammer your child down into place by forcing earlier compulsory schooling.

First pre-K was pushed. Proponents of lowering the compulsory school age use pre-K as an excuse to push for structured kindergarten, mandatory at age 5.

How long will it be until they are also forcing your children into whatever it is they deem a “structured environment?”

Shouldn’t we all be asking what’s really best for the child?

Are proponents of lowering the compulsory school age operating with your child’s best interest in mind, or are they pushing their own preconceived agenda? Who do you think is an in a better place to decide what a 5-year-old child is ready for – the child’s own parent, or a state law that applies universally to all children?

Is it better, on average, to begin formal school at an older or younger age? There are studies that support both sides of the debate, but the consensus is that there is a small benefit to entering school at an older age.

“In sum, over and above experiences at home and in child care, the age that children entered school showed some modest relation to school achievement, especially growth in achievement, with children who entered school at an older age progressing faster than children who started school at a somewhat younger age…”

This large, well-designed study is contrary to the agenda being pushed by proponents of lowering the compulsory school age. 

Proponents of lowering the compulsory school age should have a responsibility to properly demonstrate a cause-and-effect relationship between a lowered compulsory school age and long-term benefits for children into adulthood.[i]

They have not shown this evidence. So far, as stated above, the sum of the research shows the opposite: A lowered compulsory school age does not result in long-term benefits.

Why are educators so keen to force this on the people of Indiana without evidence to show that it will improve education?

The Problem is Vastly Overstated

There are parents who decide that it’s best to delay a child’s entry into public school. This happens for many reasons.

It’s wrong to automatically assume that a child who doesn’t attend public-school kindergarten when eligible will be “behind” if the child is subsequently placed into public school. There are many reasons why a concerned parent might choose alternative education, or to delay education altogether for a young child.

Some parents simply place the child in kindergarten a year later than the child is eligible. Most of those children would be placed in kindergarten, not first grade, as the idea behind delaying kindergarten was to allow a child to catch up to peers.

Some children attend private school for kindergarten. Private school tuition costs could be manageable for kindergarten, but once the price increases steeply for first grade, it becomes unaffordable for more families.

Some children are homeschooled for kindergarten.

Parents choose these options for many reasons, but part of it is in response to the changing nature of kindergarten. Parents are doing what they can do fix the problems that the education system is creating by forcing longer days and tougher curriculum on five-year-old children who are not all developmentally ready.

“It’s not just a question of when do you start kindergarten, but what do you do in those kindergarten classes? If you make kindergarten the new first grade, then parents may sensibly decide to delay entry. If kindergarten is not the new first grade, then parents may not delay children’s entries as much.”

No one knows how many parents are choosing the above options, or which options they’re choosing. Those who want to lower the compulsory school age have tossed out numbers from 118 to 7000. What is the real number? Common sense, history, and the fact that the overwhelming majority of Hoosiers (even lawmakers!) are surprised to hear that the compulsory school age isn’t already 5 tell us that the number of children is probably very small.

What to Do?

First, lawmakers need to understand that miracles do not accompany increased schooling.

I don’t think anyone is arguing against the fact that public schools are in decline. We’re all watching it happen.

Do we want more of a bad thing?

No, and it shows. Parents are increasingly demanding alternatives. We don’t want to use the hammer. We have better tools.

Our state has public schools to educate those children whose parents are unwilling or unable to do so. The state’s primary concern should be providing the education it is authorized to provide, and doing it well.

“Having expected miracles from increased schooling, the public has no choice but to live with the limitations of education. … [I]n seeking to free rather than imprison the child, promote growth rather than stunt it, and foster individual welfare rather than harm it, not only the quality of schools but also the quality of the society in which young people are growing up must be improved.”[ii]

Lowering the compulsory school age is a mistake. The state should focus its efforts on doing what it can to fix our public schools.

 

 

[i] Ray, Brian D. (2009). Is there any solid evidence for expanding compulsory school age? Salem, OR: National Home Education Research Institute.

[ii] https://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/ED119389.pdf Katz, Michael S., A History of Compulsory Education Laws. Fastback Series, No. 75. Bicentennial Series. Phi Delta Kappa, Bloomington, Ind. 1976. Available at https://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/ED119389.pdf, last accessed December 10, 2017.

 

Lisa Yankey is a happy homeschooling mom of three, but she never expected to homeschool. Teaching runs in her blood – she is a former public school teacher, and her mother, father, and brother are all former public school teachers. During her childhood and as a teacher herself, she recognized many issues in public school. She went to law school at night in a long-term plan to help improve public schools. She used to believe that every child could receive a good and appropriate education from public school. She realized the error of this belief when she watched her own child suffering in public school. She began homeschooling shortly after her oldest child had a disastrous start to public school first grade, and she has never looked back.

Lisa serves as a member of the IAHE Action Government Affairs team. She kept her career as a part-time attorney and works for herself as a sole practitioner, with a practice area in immigration law. She is known particularly for her representation of victims of domestic abuse. She continues teaching adults as a speaker on immigration law at continuing legal education events for fellow lawyers. Lisa resides in Noblesville, Indiana (Hamilton County). with her husband, three children, two dogs, and a cat. 

IAHE ACTION is a 501c4 organization. Donations are not tax deductible. It is funded by our generous donors.