Big Brother Wants to Be “Engaged” with Your Family. Here’s How . . .

Lyndon Baines Johnson Department of Education Building in Washington, DC (photo credit: IIP Photo Archive via Flickr, CC BY-NC 2.0)
Lyndon Baines Johnson Department of Education Building in Washington, DC (photo credit: IIP Photo Archive via Flickr, CC BY-NC 2.0)

As the pro-Common Core Republican candidates get winnowed out, the remaining combatants should be quizzed in greater detail about federal education policy — particularly, the many troubling provisions of the new Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA).

We’ve recently written about the Big Brother aspects of ESSA, including “21st-century community learning centers” and “full-service community schools.” (See here and here to learn how your House member and senators voted.) Part of the intrusion into parental rights is cloaked under the benign term “family engagement.” If you think that means encouraging parents to attend PTA meetings, think again.

The family-engagement provisions of ESSA begin on p. 580 of the 1,061-page “conservative” bill (as an aside, any bill that has 1,061 pages is by definition not conservative). The goal is to fund “systemic and effective family engagement policies, programs, and activities that lead to improvements in student development and academic achievement” (pp. 580-81). State plans should coordinate federal, state, and local services so that families can be subject to one mammoth bureaucracy rather than just a piddling local busybody.

This bureaucracy is to take the form of a “statewide infrastructure for family engagement in education” (p. 584). The first task for this infrastructure is to “determine parental needs and the best means for delivery of services to address such needs” (p. 587). Apparently, it didn’t occur to Congress that parents’ primary need may be for government to go away and leave them alone.

Although ESSA allows parents to decline these government ministrations if they want to (pp. 589-90), bureaucrats will certainly enroll as many parents as possible to make the “services and programs” look good and to justify their own existence. Among these programs should be those to “assist parents in partnering effectively in their children’s education and to help their children meet the challenging State academic standards [Common Core]” (p. 588). Government should train clueless parents to plan activities at home that support school lessons, to “communicate effectively” with their children since bureaucrats are better at this than parents are, and to use the technology that’s replacing literacy in the schools (pp. 588-89).

Our personal favorite is the mandate for “training programs to improve adult literacy, including financial literacy” (p. 587). Is anyone on the planet less qualified to teach financial literacy than the federal government?

To see how these government interventions might work in practice, consider a draft policy statement recently released by the U.S. Departments of Education (USED) and Health and Human Services (HHS) to address family-engagement strategies for young children. Although released before ESSA was rammed through, this statement warns parents what they can expect now that the Republican Congress has blessed the family-engagement endeavor.

A particularly objectionable aspect of this joint statement is its description of a child’s education as an “equal partnership” between professionals and families. Well, no. The government is in no way the “equal” of parents when it comes to controlling a child’s education — the parents are sovereign. But the statement drips with elite condescension toward parents, who apparently should be grateful they’re being included in the discussion at all. As long as they don’t overstep their bounds . . .

The statement also notes that a good family-engagement policy “begins prenatally and continues across settings and throughout a child’s developmental and educational experiences.” How, exactly, will this work? Maybe HHS functionaries with access to patient data through Obamacare will alert USED whenever they log a positive pregnancy test.

According to the statement, the government programs should “prioritize engagement around children’s social-emotional and behavioral health.” In fact, the government should “ensure constant monitoring and communication” about whether the child is developing government-approved attitudes and behaviors. Even if bureaucrats were qualified to assess anything at all about young children’s psychological development, the very idea that this is an appropriate role of government is abhorrent in a free society.

And how would this “constant monitoring” be achieved? One way would be through home visits: “Programs and schools should conduct periodic home visits so that teachers and families can get to know each other and communicate about children’s goals, strengths, challenges, and progress.” Even if teachers had the time or the courage to venture into unknown territory, no government official should ever be sent to invade a family absent evidence of abuse or other criminal activity. Period.

Dr. Karen Effrem of Education Liberty Watch offers another reason home visits should not be undertaken — government research itself shows that such programs are “extraordinarily ineffective” in preventing child maltreatment and furthering child development and school readiness. But as with other research that conflicts with the progressive agenda (see the multiple studies demonstrating the uselessness of Head Start), this research is ignored in the quest for bigger and ever-more intrusive government.

And of course, the statement restates the constant, insatiable demand for data. “States should collect data about the extent to which early childhood programs and schools are engaging families, the strategies they are using, and their effectiveness.” To show effectiveness, this data should measure “the effects of family engagement activities on children’s development, learning and wellness.” This can only mean that children’s psychological and behavioral development will be tracked and tied to the family-engagement strategies. But don’t worry — such highly personal information will be kept absolutely secure, except when the government decides to give it away to someone or leaves it open to a hacker. Other than that, parents can rest assured their child’s data is safe.

The progressive roots of the family-engagement movement are fascinating and will be addressed in separate posts. For now, just be aware the Republican Congress has created yet another statist monster that Obama’s USED will gleefully feed and release on an unsuspecting public. Maybe in the future, someone should read the bill.

Jane Robbins is an attorney and a senior fellow with the American Principles Project.