Opting out: Public education, state compulsion and democratic rights

Last week saw the annual summer angst-fest that is A-level results day in England and Wales. At a slow time for news, you can guarantee TV news crews will be asking kids to jump up in the air holding slips of paper. Every year, the images and the quotes are pretty much the same with the occasional outburst of ‘standards are falling/exams are getting easier’ from the anxious middle class when working class kids and their teachers really work hard.

In New York State last week came the results of this year’s common core standardised tests. Common core is a federal initiative from the Obama administration, the aims of which are consistent with an essentially shared Democrat/Republican national educational reform agenda. As with all U.S. educational reform policies, although nominally national, the national, federal dimension is one of influence, with the more or less subtle threat of being denied federal grant funding if the states don’t comply. The actual implementation is at state level and, in New York, the implementation has run into trouble with a movement of parents, teachers and activists who have drawn attention to the poor quality of the tests (compared to the tests in other states, for example) and the time taken out of children’s education through test preparation and taking the tests themselves. Click here for a Wall Street Journal blog post on the topic by an award-winning New York school principal.

The most startling feature of the results of this year’s common core tests in New York was that 20% of eligible children were ‘opted out’ by their parents or carers. I believe that is over 200,000 children, children whose parents decided that they did not wish them to become ‘guinea pigs’ for the testing industry (lovely old Pearson runs the NY tests, of course) nor did they wish their children to become data in someone else’s battle.


According to figures put together by the New York Times, the parents doing the withdrawing or ‘opting out’ of their kids were not just those from the wealthiest sections of society. If you take free school lunches as a proxy for poverty, there were significant levels of withdrawal across most social groups. The exception was schools serving the very poorest communities where opt-outs went as low as 2%. As one member of such a community put it, there isn’t a lot of time to debate test design and the ethics of participation if you don’t know from day-to-day whether you can feed your children. Once again, then, the education of the very poorest children in society differed.

As did the relationship between them, their parents and carers, and the state.

For the poorest children and their families, there were fewer opportunities to debate the appropriateness and value of the tests and a greater acceptance of the right of the state to determine the kind of education provided to them. In effect, the state compels these parents and their children to participate in public education on terms decided only by the state. Hardline ‘reformers’ will naively insist that such parents have the opportunity to vote for their representatives – conveniently ignoring the fact that many of the poorest parents don’t register to vote and also missing the point that a democratic society isn’t about donating absolute power over all aspects of public life to a small elite.

It would be hard to conceive of a situation in England where 20% of parents withdrew their children from public examinations or national tests or screening tests. The only recent precedence we have for non-participation in the examination and testing system comes from the private sector – from schools like Summerhill, for example, where participation is a choice or other schools like the one set up by actor Tilda Swinton. So, again, it is the well-off who get to choose.

But it does make one reflect on the fact that we have had resistance to state compulsion from parents in England – when a favoured local school is forced to become an academy, for example, and removed from local democratic oversight. Parents who protested against such forced academisation were often positioned as dangerous radicals by the last government, neglectful of their children’s education and mere ideological puppets of ‘the blob’. They may be the children’s parents but they don’t know what’s good for them, the argument went. So they can be declassified as parents and denied the right to choose. Because they will make the wrong choice. And the state knows best.

A demonstration in Chicago about the privatisation of schools and the role of Teach for America

A demonstration in Chicago about the privatisation of schools and the role of Teach for America

Educational reform in the U.S. and in England has raised important and difficult questions about who decides how our children are educated. Although it is true that neoliberalism as a constellation of ideas about the efficiency of markets has taken hold over much of the public services, in education and in terms of schooling, in particular, the market (‘consumers’ of public services, the people) will not be allowed to decide if the choice is to abandon markets, to deny Pearson and others the opportunity to create new income streams and to dismantle democratic oversight of one of society’s great public duties. In England and the U.S., over the next few years, it will be interesting to watch how politicians negotiate this particular minefield.

Photo credit featured image: AP