Blogger-mom Laura Wellington is making the talk show rounds after a post last month on her blog aroused interest and commentary from various newspapers. In the post, she indignantly described a fundraising drive by her child’s school that understandably raised her ire:
“…the letter [my daughter] handed me stated my daughter was to accomplish chores around the house with the goal of being paid by me for those chores the sum of $20. She would then have to hand the full $20 over to the school to make up for the shortfall in their overall budget which, ultimately, disallowed the kids to go on yet another class trip. Participation was mandatory according to what my daughter told me and the letter seemingly conveyed (however, on a later phone call, my daughter’s teacher altered the word “mandatory” to be “suggested” despite all evidence to the contrary)…”
Wellington’s complaint is that schools need to exercise fiscal responsibility, and she is joining a rising chorus of protest among parents across the country who feel that their tax dollars should not have to be supplemented with constant arm-twisting from schools urging them to buy and sell over-priced cookies or provide additional contributions. This is a fiscal policy issue; the ethical issue should be less controversial. When did schools get the authority to dictate what children do outside school? How do they justify requiring unpaid labor for the school’s benefit?
The answers, it seems to me, are “They never did” and “They can’t.”
It’s easy to see what happened in Laura Wellington’s child’s school. Realizing that the parent had been dunned for too many contributions lately, some ingenious school administrator said, “Hey! Let’s give them something of value for their money, for a change! We’ll just tell the students that they have to do $20 worth of chores, and that the parents should pass along the money to us!” Of course, the scheme has more holes than the Mexico-U.S. border. Most kids do chores for their parents anyway, either for free, or for small compensation. Either the parents will be paying twice, or the school will be taking money from the students, using their own parents to pick their pockets. Worst of all, however, is the presumption that the school can demand that its students do work without pay–on their own time– so the school can pay its bills.
Students are not the indentured servants of the school, the school board or the community. The authority of schools over the children in their charge extends to educational instruction, discipline and incidental support in school, during school hours. Suddenly, some school administrators think they have authority to perform surveillance on what kids do in their own homes, or to demand that children work for the school’s financial benefit under parental supervision. This is abuse of power, exploitive and unethical. It is the obligation of parents to draw a line, firmly and unequivocally, refusing to acquiesce to demands, suggestions, pressure, extortion or requests that they allow their children’s time out of school to still be dictated by the school.
I would extend this principle to requiring or pressuring students to do community service or volunteer work for school-sanctioned causes. If my son wants to ride his mountain bike or compose songs in his free time, no school should be able to force him to help with a re-cycling drive or read to the blind. Children, in short, are not slaves.
Minors do not have all the rights that adults have, but their autonomy is constricted sufficiently and considerably by responsible parenting, legitimate educational requirements, and the law. It is disrespectful and unfair to use them as submissive drones for a school to force into unpaid labor for the benefit of its budget, favorite social causes, or anything else