Several campus organizations, including the Princeton Open Campus Coalition (POCC) and the James Madison Program (JMP), sponsored an event on Tuesday, Nov. 1, where students and faculty debated the role of parents in control over public education.
“Tomorrow, you can get back on Twitter and have bad faith, out of context arguments, but tonight is a good faith argument and time for good faith questions,” said Leah Sargeant, chair of the open debate at the start of the event.
The debate, titled “Should Parents Have the Primary Say in Their Child’s Publicly Funded Education?” was hosted by the organization Braver Angels, which along with the sponsoring campus groups invited University community members to participate in a “respectful conversation touching all sides of a challenging issue,” according to the event’s description.
The event was attended by roughly 35 people, including students, professors, and local residents.
According to its website, Braver Angels’ mission is to “depolarize American politics.” The group travels to college campuses across the country, deploying a parliamentary-style format in which participants give speeches and answer questions, concluding with an informal debrief. Tuesday’s debate was highly structured, with opposing viewpoints alternating in succession and attendees encouraged to hit their desks when they agreed with a statement.
Speakers mostly argued their positions on theoretical grounds such as the role of the family within the state, the importance of public education, the democratic process at a local level, and how a society determines which ideologies are acceptable.
Although the event’s flyer referenced hot-button political issues of Florida’s “Don’t Say Gay” bill and “Critical Race Theory,” speakers largely avoided those topics.
Myles McKnight ’23, president of the POCC, opened the debate by speaking in favor of giving parents the ultimate authority over a child’s education.
“What moral code is the correct moral code to impose upon the whole of society?” he said. “I’m not so ready to jump to a conclusion about what set of moral values or views are objectively true and I’m not confident in the state’s authority to provide an answer to that question and to impose it upon the children of members of various communities.”
McKnight’s concerns about the government overstepping the bounds of its power were common among those who shared his position.
On the other side, most proponents of mediating parents’ control over education referenced the rights of children to receive a diverse, comprehensive education, and the government’s duty to provide an unbiased education that prepares them to enter society.
One student speaker, who opposed giving parents the primary authority, said, “[my opposition] is telling you that parents’ rights are the most important and that they trump everything. However, being a member of a society innately means that sometimes the society will require you to cede certain absolute rights in order to be a harmonious member of that society, especially when exercising those rights can lead to negative impacts for others.”
“We should consider the most likely cases of when these rights are exercised and we should see what kinds of impacts develop,” the student continued.
The Daily Princetonian was unable to verify the identity of the student speaker.
Nate Howard ’25, who attended the event, wrote to the ‘Prince’ after the event, “Right now, the Republican Party is promoting fascist and homophobic policies such as the ‘Don’t Say Gay’ bill in Florida, and I was glad to have the opportunity to voice my opposition to this extremist agenda.”
Howard is a contributing columnist for the ‘Prince.’
Professor of Near Eastern Studies Bernard Haykel, the only professor to speak at the event, said “I think it is very important for public schools to draw a very clear line between that which is ideological and that which is not. Parents would not have a right to object to the teaching of mathematics or grammar. But if the school was going to impose a particular religious doctrine on the children, then I do think the parents have a say over what gets taught.”
Also in attendance were Hillary Jersey and Grace Asagra, who both live local to Princeton and who volunteer for the parents’ rights organization NJStandsUp, which was founded in opposition to COVID-19 vaccine mandates in schools.
In an interview with the ‘Prince,’ Asagra said, “The topic is so timely and critical. This issue has been a really heart wrenching topic for most parents.”
During the debrief portion of the event, one attendee said, “I'm very pleasantly surprised by this debate. I've been in lots of debates that are civil but they’re only civil because people talk past each other. But I do think that we had a discussion, which is very rare because there’s uncivil discussion, there’s civil and there’s discussion. And we reached discussion.” (The ‘Prince’ was not able to verify the identity of this individual.)
In an interview with the ‘Prince,’ event organizer and POCC vice president Danielle Shapiro ’25 said that Braver Angels first reached out to the leaders of POCC and that the organization was excited to collaborate on such an event.
Comparing the debate to her experience with other discourse on campus, Shapiro said that it offered a more welcoming environment.
“This formal setting allows for more open speaking, and people who might not be experts on topics feel more comfortable in speaking because of the size and intimacy of the space,” she said.
Howard added that he also felt comfortable speaking at the event, writing, “We need to be talking about these salient political issues, and the Braver Angels staff and event organizers created a welcoming environment where I felt that my contributions were valued. Even though I had to leave early, they still made sure I had an opportunity to speak.”
Ben Gelman ’23, another attendee who voiced his opinion at the event, said he disagreed with the framing of the debate.
“I take issue with how Braver Angels seems to understand the partisan divide, as this problem that both sides are seemingly responsible for and therefore responsible for fixing through respectful debate,” Gelman wrote to the ‘Prince.’ “A more accurate way of understanding it would be that it’s the natural outcome of the Republicans pivoting hard right in recent years, abandoning democracy and moving to repeal the rights gained by minorities over the 20th century.”
Sargeant, who is Chief of Staff for Debates and Discourse at Braver Angels, noted some differences between the debate at Princeton and what she has experienced at other colleges.
“There aren’t always as many references to John Rawls,” she said, but students everywhere “understand the stakes and struggle with those stakes using different points of reference.”
“At a community college we might have students who are parents talking directly about their own kids in elementary school and here people are going more directly to philosophy rather than to personal experience,” Sargeant said.
Looking forward, Sargeant said that Braver Angels would come back for another event if invited.
Shapiro, in turn, said she would “be very open to running an event like this in the future,” adding that she is “very open to taking suggestions from students on different topics to discuss at these events.”
Julian Hartman-Sigall is a news and newsletter contributor for the ‘Prince.’
Cole Strupp is a news contributor from Asbury Park, N.J.
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