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BBB threatens the role of parents in raising — and educating — children

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Robert Draper, in a New York Times Magazine piece published 13 days after then-candidate Joe Biden’s string of victories on Super Tuesday, 2020, asked a question that has been on my mind ever since: “Did America Misjudge Bernie Sanders? Or Did He Misjudge America?” As a number of commentators have been quick to point out, particularly now that the House of Representatives has passed the reconciliation bill, also known as Build Back Better (BBB), even though Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) failed to capture the presidency during his two campaigns for that office, his ideas have nevertheless become central to Democratic policy-making. It is now safe to predict that regardless of whether or not Sanders “misjudged America,” we are all about to be treated to a healthy dose of his remedies for how the nation ought to be restructured.

Criticisms of the reconciliation bill have been churned out with gusto in recent weeks, and they have zeroed in on a number of important aspects, from its likely impact on already-concerning degrees of inflation, to how moving further toward a “cradle to grave” welfare system is antithetical to the American ethos, to the ugliness of vilifying the super-wealthy, who through private investment can push the United States (and the world entire) forward in categories from space travel to anti-aging research.

However, in my view, the most concerning and under-appreciated deleterious effect of this pending legislation concerns the effect it will have on reconceptualizing the relationship between parents and their children, as it shifts the expectation of child care away from parents and extended families and toward the state.

This is exemplified by the inclusion of the universal Pre-K provision in the reconciliation bill, a proposal that survived the cuts that took away free community college and other measures. Universal Pre-K was, after all, a cornerstone of Sanders’ 2020 presidential campaign. His campaign literature at the time — foreshadowing a debate that has rankled Congress this year — notably defined “child care” as “infrastructure,” while also asserting that “[o]ur current child care and early education system in the United States is an international embarrassment” and calling for “free full-day, full-week … from infancy through age three.”

Now, less than two years after the Sanders campaign issued this proposal, something very close to this vision is likely to become reality in the United States, barring significant modifications on the Senate side.

In addition to the more fundamental concern about the state supplanting the role of parents and ever-important extended families when it comes to raising and transmitting values to children, there are findings that call into question the assumption that earlier schooling corresponds with better educational outcomes later on (a core argument used by proponents of the policy).

This also comes at a time when public education is increasingly falling short of the mark across the board. In August, Oregon’s Democratic Gov. Kate Brown signed into law a bill suspending math, reading, and writing requirements for high school graduation. Yet, the solution being pushed from Washington, D.C., remains the same: Let’s get kids in this system even earlier, and let’s prioritize interventions from educators rather than parents.

Earlier this month, McDonald’s CEO Chris Kempczinski faced significant criticism for indicating to Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot his belief that parents ought to be held more responsible for their children’s well-being. And, in September, in a blunder that defined a gubernatorial campaign, Terry McAuliffe said, “I don’t think parents should be telling schools what they should teach.” The push from Congress is in the same vein as Kempczinski’s critics and the thrust of McAuliffe’s assertion: The default should be that children — from an early age — should be the domain of people other than their parents.

None of this is to sidestep recognizing the legitimate hardships many parents experience in affording or finding adequate child care, but it is not the job of the taxpayer to take care of people’s children. Parenthood, and family more broadly, is about embracing obligations: to one’s child, grandchild, niece, or nephew, particularly in an era when a number of social critics have pointed to the decline of the extended family as a key driving force behind rising reports of loneliness and social isolation.

Although the term “family values” has been frequently leveraged and, at times, bastardized for political purposes, there is perhaps no more glaring example of its bastardization as when Sanders’ campaign literature referred to government-funded, universal child care as being an example of “enacting real family values.”

Real family values is not about shifting responsibility to government-provided child care; it’s about rediscovering the responsibility of parents, grandparents, aunts, and uncles to children in their families. And as those who have observed nearly any debate in education over the last half-century quickly notice, the question consistently returns to the same underlying issue at-hand: Families are almost always better equipped to care for their children than anyone else.

Erich J. Prince co-founded and runs Merion West (@merionwest), a Philadelphia-based group promoting civil discourse in the age of polarization; he also writes a weekly column at MediaVillage on how the news media covers politics. He previously served as a communications strategist for former North Carolina governor Pat McCrory.

Tags Bernie Sanders budget reconciliation package Build Back Better Act Child care Early childhood education Extended family Joe Biden Kate Brown Lori Lightfoot Parenting Terry McAuliffe universal pre-K universal pre-school

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