Board must do what’s best for students [The Hub Debate]

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Photo by: Anna C. Brandao

This is  a Hub Debate on the role of boards of education. For more background, read this.  Participate in the comments or submit a response for publication to UtahPoliticoHub@gmail.com. The question is: “Who do you think the board should serve?  Parents? Students? Why?


The Utah Constitution requires the State Board of Education to serve the students who participate in the public education system even if that service conflicts with the preferences of their parents.

The Utah Constitution vests control over the public education system in the State Board of Education: “The general control and supervision of the public education system shall be vested in a State Board of Education.” Utah Constitution, Article X, Section 3. The public education system is composed of “all public elementary and secondary schools and such other schools and programs as the Legislature may designate.” Utah Constitution, Article X, Section 2.

Legal scholars as far back as Blackstone have recognized that school teachers stand in loco parentis to the children in their care. In loco parentis means “in the place of the parent” and has been interpreted to give teachers the right to restrain minor children in their custody from disrupting educational activities. But teachers, local school boards, and the State School Board also stand in loco parentis in the sense that they must act in the best interests of the children they care for.

Because Utah uses a representative form of government, parents, who are also voters, may disagree at times with the choices of school administrators and school boards. In those situations, they have a duty to their children to express those disagreements and work to find solutions that will advance their children’s interests. However, the Board is not merely an extension of parents’ desires. The Board has a responsibility to follow its best judgment. If voters disagree with those judgments, they should do all they can to replace the Board with members whose judgments they trust.

Recognizing that the Board must act in the best interests of the children it educates does nothing to denigrate the sacred responsibility of parents to be the primary educators and decision makers for their children. Advances in private schooling and home schooling give concerned parents viable alternatives to the public school system.

To test the idea that the Board must act on behalf of parents rather than children, imagine that a majority of parents wanted the Board to act in a way that would actually harm children. For example, suppose parents wanted the Board to teach something that was false to the children. Could the Board do so and fulfill its charge? No. A good Board would defy the parents and likely be removed and replaced with a Board who agreed with the parents.

By the same token, the Board is not obligated to do whatever the students want. Minor students are not in a position to make major decisions for themselves. The Board should do what it thinks is best for the students just as parents sometimes ask children to do things they don’t want to do for their own good.

Generally, parents want what is best for their children and I can’t imagine many situations where the interests of the parents and the children conflict. Yet, just as we expect legislators to follow their moral judgments and do what they know to be right even if it is unpopular, school boards must do what they believe to be right. The recourse in a democratic system is to replace them if we disagree. We should not ask them to replace their judgments with our own. Rather, we should look for members whose judgments we trust.

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