The following is our op-ed published in the Salt Lake Tribune.
In an effort to tear down Sen. Aaron Osmond’s proposal regarding eliminating compulsory school-attendance laws in Utah, critics have produced a wide range of responses, absolutely none of which addresses the actual problem.
Utah law (62A-4a-201-1a) states that, “Under both the United States Constitution and the constitution of this state, a parent possesses a fundamental liberty interest in the care, custody, and management of the parent’s children.” It also says that the state recognizes that parents have “the right, obligation, responsibility, and authority” to educate their children and that “the state’s role is secondary and supportive to the primary role of a parent.”
In other words, parents are the stewards of their children — not the state. Utah’s Constitution does require that the state provide schools for any children whose parents want them to attend, but a secondary and supportive role requires that the state not compel parents to utilize its services.
Compulsory-attendance laws presume state stewardship over children. Parents are compelled, under threat of fines and jail time, and with only limited exceptions, to send their children to government schools. This is a glaring conflict with the codified recognition of a parent’s “fundamental liberty interest,” and must be resolved one way or another by the Legislature. Either parents have the right to educate their children as they see fit, or they do not. There is no middle ground.
Critics have not addressed, let alone refuted, the stewardship question as it relates to compulsory-attendance laws. They instead evade this conflict, employing fear-mongering tactics by asking the reader to contemplate the plight of children in poor, rural families throughout Utah whose parents might, without being threatened by the government, choose to keep their child home to babysit so they can go to work.
Let’s make one thing clear: Those seeking to repeal Utah’s compulsory-education laws do not want children to be denied educational opportunities. We recognize that freedom sometimes produces outcomes that we may disagree with or find objectionable. But we are highly skeptical that a significant number of families would deprive their children of an education if given the choice.
Utah law also states that this “fundamental liberty interest” of parents to educate their children as they see fit “does not cease to exist simply because a parent may fail to be a model parent.”
Compulsory-attendance laws therefore are invalid in individual cases, and completely illegitimate when applied to the population as a whole. The state may not violate parental stewardship without demonstrating neglect or abuse in specific cases — an intentionally high benchmark since the state must by default be “secondary and supportive.”
It may be easy for most people to dismiss this conflict as nothing more than theoretical, but for many Utah parents, it is raw and emotional and very real, since they have butted heads with state bureaucrats, child services workers and truancy courts over this issue.
The threats and punishments imposed upon them stem not from alleged abuse or neglect, but because they failed to turn in an affidavit on time, or because they want to take a long vacation with their child, or because of a child’s ongoing medical issues causing lengthy absences. Education freedom offers flexibility in both curriculum and schedule, whereas the state’s system does not.
In order to actually recognize and protect the parental “right, obligation, responsibility, and authority” to educate one’s child, compulsory-attendance laws must be eliminated.