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Opinion & Essays - April, 2002 Issue #92 

  Empowered Parents Increase Educational Choices

By: Lon Woodbury, IECA
Certified Educational Planner

A reporter for a national magazine recently asked me how much growth I was witnessing within the network of parent-choice schools and programs. At the time I answered very conservatively, estimating the growth at 15% a year. However, after more thought, I realized that a rate of 25 to 35 percent a year is a more accurate, yet still conservative estimate of the growth being driven by parents who are becoming more empowered to choose their children’s education.

This estimated rate of growth is based in part on the increasing number of parent-choice schools and programs included in each new edition of my annual directory, Places for Struggling Teens (TM), which reflects the increasing number of schools and programs that have received a positive consensus from independent educational consultants. Also, an increasing number of private schools and programs have opened their doors; there are so many new startups we can barely track them! My estimate of the growth in this field is also a reflection of the steady annual increase in my business, Woodbury Reports Inc.

This growth seems to have barely slowed with the recession and the fallout from 911 during the past year. This is a little surprising because the general presumption used to be that this network has been driven primarily by families with money. The prediction a couple years ago was that if we get into a recession, the network would stop growing and contract. However, even with our nation’s recent experience with recession, the parent-choice network’s growth seems to have barely even slowed.

It was shortsighted to view the growth of this network primarily as a function of the number of parents with money. The real drive behind the network’s growth is a massive and basic shift in the attitudes of the American public. Specifically, parents are feeling more empowered than used to be the case.

Simply put, more parents are beginning to realize they can take direct action to place their child with problems in a residential school or program. These parents are actively bypassing the choice to turn their children with problems over to the public education system, the legal system, or state welfare system as the final authority. As more parents become aware they have other options, enrollments will increase in parent-choice special needs schools and programs, and the network will continue to grow.

This major change in attitudes is made obvious by observing what the attitudes were a half century ago. At that time, the commonly accepted phrase was, "The Doctor knows best." This faith in "experts-as-final-authority" extended to virtually all professions by the 1950s and continued expanding. Mental health professionals were essentially given the status of “expert” by the 1962 US Supreme Court decision that determined Alcoholism was a disease deserving health insurance coverage. The mental health professionals became the “experts” who certified the condition. In the 1970s, laws were passed expanding the right and responsibility of states to intervene when state-hired "experts" decided a child was in danger of harm from their family. At the time, a prevalent concept among many childcare workers was that "parents are the problem," and this still seems to be a common attitude in many state Health and Welfare agencies around the country. An attitude frequently expressed at residential facilities during those years was something to the effect that, “You messed up your kid. Give him/her to us, don't interfere, and we will fix the problem you caused." Many parents at the time accepted this view.

If this faith in "experts-as-final-authority" had continued to be as prevalent today as it was in the 1950s, there would be very few, if any, parent-choice special needs schools. If public attitudes hadn't changed, then a parent’s only choice when their child was making poor decisions would be to decide which expert or agency to turn the problem over to and then stay out of their way.

The fact that parents today have the choice of taking direct action is a direct result of an attitudinal shift that directly contradicts the belief in experts-as-final-authority. The campus "revolt" of the late 1960s was a rebellion against a perceived blind faith in the authority of all “experts”. It was sparked by the Vietnam War, which was conducted by experts referred to as "The Best and The Brightest,” who were hired by the Kennedy and Johnson Administrations. The events surrounding the war in Vietnam and later, the Nixon Administration’s Watergate activities, created the kernels of distrust in “experts” that have continued to grow ever since.

CEDU School was founded during the turmoil of the late 1960s, based on the concept that mental health "experts-as-final-authority" had not been doing a good job of helping children who needed residential intervention. Following a virtually anti-therapeutic, or anti- expert philosophy, by the late 1980s, CEDU's sister school, Rocky Mountain Academy (RMA) in North Idaho, had an enrollment as high as 200 students, which I know because at the time I was their Admissions Director. Though this is considerably higher than RMA’s current enrollment, CEDU's surprising success at that point in time proved there were parents who had the money and will to pay out of their own pockets the high cost of tuition. They were willing to take direct placement action on their own, because they were extremely disappointed at the services their child had received from mainstream psychiatric and school services and facilities. CEDU's success fostered a considerable number of spin-offs, imitators and competitors that has increased every year, all a result of a philosophy new at least to the late 20th century: parent-choice and parent-pay.

This change in public attitudes from the virtually blind faith in “experts-as-final-authority” to that of parents empowered to make their own choices, is apparent in other sections of our society. Where medical doctors would once decide what the patient should do and expect compliance, now they are more likely to simply suggest treatment, realizing the patient has the final say. Alternative forms of healing such as Chiropractic and Acupuncture are making a comeback, allowing patients an increasingly wide variety of acceptable choices for treatment. The explosion in the vitamin and supplement industry shows that more people are assuming responsibility and taking direct preventive action regarding their health. Parent support groups and parenting seminars are rapidly expanding with “experts” participating as support, rather than serving as final authorities. This suggests that an increasing number of parents believe they know their children best. The popularity of voucher and charter school proposals also reflect the sentiment that parents wish to at least share in the decision making regarding their children’s education. The approximately one million children that are being home schooled are an example of parents who are in effect taking total responsibility for the education of their children.

The network of emotional growth and therapeutic schools and programs that are the focus of this newsletter is part of a society-wide phenomenon, of which parent-choice is one of the examples. The network was created from an important change in parent attitudes during the past few decades. As more parents learn they can take matters into their own hands when their children make poor decisions, rather than wait for “experts” to solve the problem, it will result in an increasing number of private parent-choice schools and programs. It is simply a reflection of childcare professionals responding to what the parents perceive their children need. In business terminology, this is called a “market,” and, as the case in any enterprise, in is important for consumers to be well-informed so they can make good decisions.

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