It’s All In How You Define ‘Community’

Every week, the National Journal’s Education Expert blog tackles a different issue, and from hereon out I’ll be weighing in on many of them, crossposting at Cato@Liberty. I sent in my first entry today, which appears as a “guest response” while they set me up to appear as a regular. It’s on my favorite topic – education and social cohesion – so hopefully I’ve started with a bang.

Enjoy, and thanks to the National Journal for bringing a libertarian perspective on board:

Looking at the evidence suggests that school choice is the best educational system to build strong communities. A lot, though, depends on how you define “community.”

Diane Ravitch essentially defines a community as a “neighborhood,” and certainly neighborhoods can be a form of community. But neighborhoods are hardly close to the only type of community, and to the extent that neighborhoods – or, given education reality these days, school districts, states, and the federal government – often include people with very diverse backgrounds, desires, and norms, public schools can be very destructive to social cohesion.

Start with simple logic: If diverse people are required to support a single system of schools, is it more likely to result in unity or conflict? The answer, of course, is conflict. If people cannot agree on what math curriculum to use, they have to fight it out politically. If they cannot agree on whether or not there should be school uniforms, they have to fight that out. Indeed, any disagreement has to be resolved in a political arena, and the term “arena” certainly does not connote cohesion.

We see this forced conflict manifested constantly in education. States and communities are regularly inflamed over the teaching of human origins, whether we’re talking Scopes Monkey or Intelligent Design. We have disputes of which religious groups will get their holidays off from school. And then there’s the ever contentious teaching of U.S. history.

And conflict is only one manifestation of the division caused by trying to bring diverse people under a single government umbrella. Renowned social capital theorist Robert Putnam has found that where there is significant diversity there is also major atomization – people “pull in like a turtle” – quite possibly because they have few recognized, shared norms to hold onto. So not only don’t you have cohesive – but separated – groups, you have seriously compromised intra-group cohesion as well. Communities of all types are weak.

How do you overcome these very real problems through the education system? Let people choose schools – especially private schools – with the money that currently all goes to public schools. Then, not only can you phase out the inherently adversarial system that is public schooling, you can empower people to choose schools based on their shared norms and values.

But won’t this “balkanize” Americans? Maybe, in that many people will choose to attend schools with people like themselves. That, though, is certainly preferable to forcing us at each others’ throats. Moreover, there is evidence that allowing people to choose schools helps to meaningfully overcome serious divisions. Research by Jay Greene and Nicole Mellow, for instance, found that lunch tables – where students sit by true, voluntary choice – at private schools were better integrated by race than those at public institutions. Why? There could be many explanations, but a very reasonable one is that the ties that bind kids at private schools – common religious values, perhaps shared interest in a particular curriculum – help to overcome divisions such as race.

Does more work need to be done to prove that choice is crucial to building communities? Absolutely. Unfortunately, for the most part we haven’t even considered that government schooling might be more divisive than unifying, despite the very real – and painful – evidence that that could indeed be the case. Well, we need to seriously consider the possibility that choice is better mortar for building communities than government schooling because, respect for “neighborhood schools” notwithstanding, the evidence in favor of choice – and against government schooling – is both real and mounting.