Anoka-Hennepin “Battleground” is Government Schooling in Microcosm

The Star-Tribune has a telling article about the Anoka-Hennepin school district, Minnesota’s largest and, after a recent string of suicides, the subject of a lawsuit and federal investigation over its handling of sexual orientation-based bullying. What led to the suicides and how the district dealt with bullying remain open questions, but in the absence of concrete evidence on those matters, perhaps nothing nails Anoka-Hennepin’s root problem as squarely as this article subhead: “Diverse and large.” 

Anoka-Hennepin, in other words, appears to be the nation in microcosm, and the firestorm enveloping it sadly but starkly illustrates the destructiveness of forcing diverse people to support a single system of government schools.

Beyond its succinct subhead, the Star-Tribune piece expands on its main point:

The spotlight isn’t a surprise to [Superintendent Dennis] Carlson, who recalls the late U.S. Sen. Paul Wellstone telling him that politicos and cultural observers look to the disparate school district as a bellwether not just for the state, but the nation.

“That’s why we’ve been chosen for this political battleground,” Carlson said. “[But] it’s not a battle we want to fight. That’s not why we’re here.”

One flashpoint is the district’s 10-sentence Sexual Orientation Curriculum Policy, which allows teachers to discuss sexual orientation issues but requires them to remain neutral. Two national civil rights groups sued the district this month on behalf of five current and former students, seeking removal of the policy, which they say doesn’t do enough to prevent harassment.

Meanwhile, a parents group is seeking to keep the policy in place and accuses the lawsuit sponsors of using children as pawns.

All the problems with forcing diverse people to support a single system of government schools are here: The inevitable conflict; the hopelessness of “neutrality” (which itself requires taking a stand not to act on something); and schools becoming battlegrounds when what most people presumably want is just for them to teach their children. Oh, and as usual with politically controlled schooling, there’s politics thrown in: Anoka-Hennepin is in Michele Bachmann’s district, and people are starting to connect its problems to her.

Anoka-Hennepin is, save for being the home of a major presidential candidate, not an outlier: As I laid out in a 2007 report, in just a single year battles sparked by the zero-sum contest of whose rights and morals win in government schooling raged across the nation. Subsequent to publishing that, I have collected information on hundreds more throwdowns around the country, which I hope to have posted on Cato’s website in the coming months.

This is not how education in a free country should operate – government picking rights winners and losers – yet  based on fuzzy notions of all-togetherness many education thinkers and pundits blithely assert that government schooling is the “foundation of our democracy.” It’s a conclusion that simply isn’t supported by either logic or evidence, and Anoka-Hennepin exemplifies both crucial failings.

I don’t know if the Anoka-Hennepin district intentionally failed to combat bullying based on sexual orientation – if it did, that is clearly unacceptable – but from what is known, Anoka-Hennepin, like public schooling generally, is doomed to war. And there is only one way to meaningfully foster peace: Let parents control education dollars and choose schools that share their values,  rather than forcing citizens to come to blows.