Who Should Control Children's Education?: Parents, Children, and the State


The article considers how liberal democracies and their courts should address disputes about children’s education when they arise in public schools. I argue that in a liberal democracy it is inevitable that there will be conflicts among parents, children, and the state’s interests with respect to public education. Given the legitimacy of claims by the community to have a say in how its future citizens should be educated; the equally legitimate claims of parents to have a say in how their own children should be educated; the need for children to develop the autonomy that liberalism demands; and the needs of the polity to ensure that children come to possess the civic virtues necessary to perpetuate a healthy liberal democracy, none of these interests can be allowed completely to dominate education in public schools. Instead, a vigorous liberal democracy must develop a framework for education that gives all of these interests some accommodation. In this article, I set out an approach that accomplishes this in the context of disputes about civic education.

In Part I, I set out the basic framework of the problem by considering disputes over civic education that have arisen in recent years. I argue that these cases are so difficult for liberal democratic theory because of the conflicting claims to authority that are inherent in a liberal democracy. In this form of government, the majority, parents, and children themselves all have legitimate (and potentially conflicting) claims to have particular goods furthered with respect to civic education. In Part II, I argue that leading theories of civic education founder because they fail to attend to the full range of legitimate claims. Part III demonstrates that a more nuanced analysis of these claims to authority ameliorates some of the tensions among them. I then offer an alternative approach that seeks to better balance these varying claims to authority, and the goods that they support. Finally, Part IV argues that the theoretical approach I set out in Part III, although certainly not mandated by current constitutional doctrine, can be incorporated into current constitutional frameworks to assess challenges to civic education programs.


Education Law

Date of this Version

August 2006