Topic: Education and Child Policy

Educational Toleration

NPR reports on a new Florida law that requires the teaching of American history in the schools and sets up some rules for how it should be taught. At the beginning of the report I was amused by the description of the impetus for the law:

Mike Fasano was a state Senator from New Port Richey, Florida, just north of Tampa. After visiting some schools he learned that students often didn’t know the name of their town’s mayor, the name of the state’s lieutenant governor, or even the difference between the Florida legislature and the U.S. Congress.

The name of the lieutenant governor? Let’s see … kids who can’t vote can’t name a public official who has no power. And that’s a problem? But OK, they should know the difference between the legislature and the Congress. And so:

To help remedy that, Fasano proposed a bill recently signed into law that requires Florida schools to teach the history of the United States from the period of discovery to the present. Nothing controversial about that. The clause that alarmed historians was the one that seemed to suggest that any discussions of controversial events that were open to different interpretations would be off-limits.

Indeed, the bill does say:

American history shall be viewed as factual, not as constructed, shall be viewed as knowable, teachable, and testable, and shall be defined as the creation of a new nation based largely on the universal principles stated in the Declaration of Independence.

And that has stirred controversy. Teachers and educrats and a Washington lobbyist for historians (!) all complain that history is not just “facts,” that interpretation is essential for understanding what happened. And of course they’re right. The first problem is that millions of things happened every day in 400 years of American history (note that “400 years” assumes that American history began with the arrival of European settlers). You can’t tell kids every one of those things, so already you’re picking and choosing among facts, based on some theory or assumption about what’s important.

And then of course history is full of controversies: Did the British treat the colonists unfairly? Did the colonists treat the Indians unfairly? Were the costs of the American Revolution worth it? Were the Founders hypocrites to proclaim their devotion to liberty while holding slaves? And so on and so on, right up to the dropping of the atomic bomb, the debacle of Vietnam, and the contemporary questions of whether either Bill Clinton or George W. Bush was the worst president in American history.

But the mere listing of a few historical controversies illustrates the difficulty of deciding on a “right” answer. Whose interpretation should be taught to all students in government schools? Should we tell students that Jefferson was a hero or a hypocrite? That the 600,000 deaths in the Civil War were or were not worth it? That the bombing of Hiroshima was a war crime or a necessary measure to save even more lives? That FDR saved capitalism or transformed a federal republic into a centralized welfare state?

There are no right answers to these questions. (Well, there are, but apparently not everyone sees them.) So the teaching of history becomes a political struggle: Which faction will get to impose its view on millions of children?

The way to avoid political fights like these is to depoliticize them. Take away the power for anyone to impose his or her views on all the children. People used to expect the state to impose one religion on the whole society. When, nevertheless, people came to hold differing religious beliefs, Europe went through the Wars of Religion. And out of those conflicts came a new understanding: religious toleration and the separation of church and state. Let everyone worship as he chooses, and let no one impose religion on those with different beliefs.

The separation of school and state would accomplish the same thing in education: No more political fights over school prayer, the Pledge of Allegiance, gay teachers, evolution, dress codes, sex education, or historical interpretation. Let every family choose schools that reflect their own values or otherwise best meet their educational needs. And if we can’t achieve separation, we could at least adopt toleration: Let all parents send their children to schools they choose, without financial penalty.

Who Is Really “Obsessed” Here?

I just fired off this letter to the editors of the Houston Chronicle:

Who Is Really “Obsessed” Here?

In an August 16 editorial (“Voucher Obsession”), you claim as fact that “vouchers would only [help] a few students.” The Netherlands has had a nationwide public and private school choice program since 1917. About three quarters of Dutch students now attend private schools. Chile introduced school choice in the 1980s, and the majority of students in that country are now enrolled in private schools.

As school choice programs allow demand to rise, the supply of private schools rises to meet it. For you to be unaware of such an elementary fact about market-based education systems does a disservice to your readers. And it begs a serious question: if you know so little about school choice, why do you oppose it so obsessively?

“Abolish Religious Schools” — Guardian Columnist

In response to the latest Islamist terrorist plot, Guardian columnist Polly Toynbee makes the following recommendation:

A new Commission on Integration and Cohesion, launching this month, will be worthless unless its first recommendation is to end religious and ethnic segregation in schools. That means no Church of England or Catholic schools, no Muslim or Jewish schools.

Ah yes, social cohesion through religious tyranny, a winning strategy down through the centuries. Nyet.

A nation that fought a number of civil wars over (among other things) the repression of religious freedom should have learned that compulsion in matters of faith does not breed social harmony. I would have thought Ms. Toynbee particularly well equipped to pass along that historical pearl, given that she is the descendant of not one but two well known British historians. Apparently the nut does sometimes fall far from the tree.

The Evolutionary War, Part Deux

In response to an earlier post, a reader e-mails with the following comment: “Intelligent Design is fundamentally a religious theory and thus cannot be taught in public schools according to the First Amendment.” 

Regrettably, it’s not that simple. For the first century of their existence, state schools engaged in official prayer and Bible reading in bald defiance of the First Amendment. That official religiosity was only discontinued after a 1963 Supreme Court ruling. There’s no reason it couldn’t come back. The sad truth is that our Constitution and Bill of Rights are regularly trampled over by legislators who find their content inconvenient (viz., the 10th Amendment). 

Furthermore, there is no guarantee that all courts, in perpetuity, will see Intelligent Design as a religious theory, as happened to be the case in last year’s Pennsylvania District Court verdict [.pdf]. 

Even at present, public schools in many parts of the country have watered down their coverage of the theory of evolution to avoid rousing the ire of adherents of ID or creationism. This is perhaps part of the reason that only 13 percent of Americans think humans evolved through entirely natural processes, while the rest think they were created in their present form (46%), or guided in their evolution (31%), by the god of their choice.

Natural human evolution has been public schools’ sole explanation for human origins for three generations, and that is the result. The official knowledge thing has thus already been tried, at length, and it has failed on its own terms.

Parental choice is a better approach. Those who want their children to receive a high-quality secular scientific education will be able to get it – which many cannot do in our current public schools. And those who want to pass along their religious beliefs about human origins to their children will be free to do so, without being forced to wheedle those beliefs into the official government schools for which they are compelled to pay. 

Most important of all, in a country founded on freedom of conscience and individual liberty, it is not the government’s proper role to indoctrinate children with the majority’s views (or, in this case, a tiny but influential minority’s views) – whether or not you or I happen to think those views are correct. 

Still more here.

Gimme That Old Time Sci-ence

Much of America’s soi-pensant intellectual left opposes school choice as a solution to the Intelligent Design vs. Evolution battle. They argue that some things, like science instruction, are too important to be left to the discretion of the drooling masses “unqualified” parents. The state must step in, they believe, to ensure that all children are taught the non-Gospel, God-not-fearing, scientific TRUTH.

A small problem with this “reasoning” is that it fails to consider the possibility that the state might not always be in possession of said TRUTH. Consider, for instance, the recent words of Arkansas’ Democratic gubernatorial candidate, Mike Beebe: “I believe in intelligent design and I don’t think intelligent design and evolution are mutually exclusive.” Beebe went on to tell reporters that intelligent design should be available to students alongside curriculum on evolution theory. The Republican candidate for Lieutenant Governor, Jim Holt, “called evolution a ‘fraud theory’ and said that keeping intelligent design out of the classroom is censorship.”

Thanks to the federal government’s accelerating usurpation of control over the nation’s public schools, it is not difficult to imagine a day when such candidates hold federal office and can shape instruction in classrooms all across America.

How, exactly, would that protect the scientific truth so ostensibly dear to the anti-choice left?

This is why the latent totalitarianism of so many American intellectuals is remarkably short sighted. It might not always be a friendly face waiving from the back seat of the flag-adorned staff-car….

More here.

Where Are the Conservatives?

When the Education Department was created in 1979, many critics warned that a secretary of education would turn into a national minister of education. Rep. John Erlenborn (R-Ill.), for instance, wrote,

There would be interference in textbook choices, curricula, staffing, salaries, the make-up of student bodies, building designs, and all other irritants that the government has invented to harass the population. These decisions which are now made in the local school or school district will slowly but surely be transferred to Washington.

Dissenting from the committee report that recommended establishing the department, Erlenborn and seven other Republicans wrote, “The Department of Education will end up being the Nation’s super schoolboard. That is something we can all do without.”

That’s why Ronald Reagan promised to abolish Jimmy Carter’s Department of Education in his 1980 campaign. And why House Budget Committee chairman John Kasich put abolition of the department in his budget proposal after the 1994 GOP takeover of Congress.

But things changed. Instead of eliminating or at least reducing federal intervention in local schools, Republicans in 2001 decided to dramatically escalate it with the No Child Left Behind Act. And now Jeb Bush, whom some conservatives call the best governor in the country, writes in the Washington Post (along with Michael Bloomberg) that we should strengthen NCLB. Make it tougher, they write, with real standards and real enforcement. Create data systems to “track” every student. Create federal standards for teachers.

If there’s an earthquake this week, it may be caused by Madison, Taft, Goldwater, and Reagan turning over in their graves. Imagine it: the leading conservative governor in America, considered a pioneer in education reform, wants the distant federal government to come into his state’s schools and impose tougher rules and regulations. And even the Wall Street Journal’s redoubtable editorial page deplores “rampant noncompliance” with federal mandates and “lax enforcement” by Big Brother in Washington.

In its new issue, American Conservative magazines asks two dozen leading intellectuals “What is left? What is right? Does it matter?” Not if leading conservatives have made their peace with federal control of local schools–and are demanding that the feds crack down on the locals.

Federalism, Compulsion, and School Choice

My recent posting criticizing federal school voucher programs has drawn a critique from Robert Teegarden of the Alliance for School Choice. Here is my response: 

I appreciate Robert and the Alliance taking the time to respond to my position on vouchers, tax credits, and the federal government. I’ve long argued that the school choice movement needs the equivalent of the Federalist and Anti-Federalist papers to hash out the best policy solutions, and here we are hashing out the proper federal role in market education reform. Excellent.

The first thing I’d like to do is correct some misapprehensions about my views. I do not think, nor have I ever said, that “tax credits… never have any government regulation,” as Robert claimed. I have shown that current tax credit programs impose less regulation on private school instruction than do current voucher programs, and I have argued that tax credits reduce the incentive for regulatory encroachment over time (see the “Conviction, Compulsion, and Conflict” section of the linked page).

Also, I would like to be clear that my opposition to federal school choice programs is not limited to federal vouchers, but includes federal education tax credits as well. I see federal vouchers as a more serious danger than federal tax credits, but neither is advisable.

The arguments, in both cases, are the same: the risk of destroying the entire U.S. independent education sector due to federal regulatory encroachment is simply too great, and federal intervention violates the 10th Amendment because Congress is granted no powers over education under the Constitution.

Robert’s contention that the 10th Amendment allows for federal vouchers – because ”the people” want vouchers and the Amendment reserves power to “the people” – is not persuasive. The express purpose of the 10th Amendment is to forbid Congress from acting outside its constitutional purview, regardless of what voters may be clamoring for at any given time. If the people want to change the Constitution to allow federal vouchers, there is a provision for that in the amendment process. Unless and until the Constitution is amended, Congress is legally bound by it.

In making the regulatory argument, I referred to “the laboratory of federalism.” It’s not my phrase, though, and I shouldn’t have used it. A better way of expressing the issue is to think of the states as market actors competing for businesses and residents. Under the “marketplace of federalism,” families and businesses seeking high quality education can seek out educationally freer states and flee states that mess up their education systems by excessively regulating the private sector. The federal government, by contrast, is a monopolist. Any regulations imposed by it are imposed equally on all schools in every state.

There is no check or balance to mitigate this threat. Robert called me “prescient” for expressing this concern, but the converse is true: I can’t see the future, but my hindsight is 20-20. Having studied dozens of school systems from ancient times to the present, I have found no system of elementary and secondary education funded by the government that did not eventually fall under the government’s pervasive control. Not one.

Robert points to pre-school and higher-education programs that have escaped such suffocating regulation. These are not germane. Historically, government regulation of the content of schooling has been concentrated most severely on the elementary and secondary levels because this is the period during which minds can most easily be shaped. Too much younger and children cannot grasp intellectual and ideological concepts. Too much older and they begin to have minds of their own. The existence of government-funded college and pre-school programs that have escaped extensive regulation does not alter the fact that such minimally regulated programs have seldom existed and have never survived at the elementary and secondary levels.

Robert ends his commentary with the following hopeful statement: “Money going to students is different from money going for institutions….  And like the famed battles for Troy, the ‘curriculum culture wars’ in America will all but cease, for parents will then actually be able to choose a school consistent with their values.”

His hope is unjustified. As I pointed out in the article to which Robert was responding, the Dutch have had “money going to the student” since 1917. This has not eliminated their culture wars. Some liberal Dutch citizens are uncomfortable funding orthodox Islamic voucher schools, and have made efforts to regulate them out of existence. In the wake of the murder of Theo Van Gogh, several schools, Muslim and non-Muslim, were burned to the ground in eye-for-an-eye arsons. Though Muslim voucher schools still exist, they are being increasingly heavily regulated, whether or not they promulgate extremist or hateful views.

It isn’t hard to see similar fault lines in America. A conservative religious school in Florida (one not participating in any of that state’s voucher programs) expelled a student a year or two ago for learning while gay. The student wasn’t “out,” but a teacher got wind of his sexual orientation, asked him about it, and he was expelled when he answered truthfully.

Does anyone think this expulsion would long stand if the school were cashing government voucher checks? Inevitably, liberal-minded folk would campaign for a law forbidding discrimination on such grounds. And would religious conservatives morally opposed to homosexuality be happy about such a law, or happy to fund schools aimed specifically at gay students? Or would they try to pass their own regulations to entrench their own views?

What voucher advocates have yet to acknowledge is that compelling all taxpayers to support every kind of schooling (a government voucher program) is a recipe for the same set of social conflicts as compelling all taxpayers to support a single kind of schooling (the current monopoly system). The only alternatives that avoid this socially Balkanizing compulsion are complete separation of school and state, and non-refundable education tax credits.

As I explained in my piece on federal vouchers, personal use tax credits involve people spending their own money on themselves – no compulsion involved. And tax credits for donations to private scholarship funds allow the donor to chose the recipient organization, also avoiding compulsion.

Finally, tax credits are indeed viable. Robert claims that the donation tax credit funding stream would prove insufficient. Before the rapid spread of state schooling in the mid-1800s, elementary enrollment and literacy were nearly universal among the free population in both England and the United States. That was in large part due to mutual aid societies and philanthropies. It has, in other words, already been done – and done even without the help of a tax credit program. With a tax credit program that allows taxpayers to redirect their funds to scholarship programs at no cost to themselves, universal access to the education marketplace can be achieved far more easily than it was in the early republic.

Robert’s comment that it is somehow unacceptable for low-income families to rely on the goodwill of others fails to recognize that this is exactly the system we have today. This is a democracy. If there were not overwhelming support for high levels of education spending in this country, we wouldn’t have increased inflation-adjusted per-pupil spending by a factor of 14 over the past eighty years. Americans’ commitment to universal education is undeniable, and does not rest on a gun being pointed at the public’s head.

For a further discussion of these points, please see my piece Forging Consensus, and thanks again for engaging in this important discussion.