Why, Here’s the Myth Now!

Yesterday, the Center on Education Policy (CEP) released Why We Still Need Public Schools: Public Education for the Common Good, which argues that American public schooling is a unifying force that has taken diverse people and made them one, as well as taught them to be good, democratic citizens. 

CEP is wrong, but the timing of their report couldn’t have been better. It just so happens that two days earlier Cato released Why We Fight: How Public Schools Cause Social Conflict, which directly addresses CEP’s main points. 

Why We Fight itemizes nearly 150 divisive, political battles forced by public schooling in the 2005–06 school year. The paper dispels many of the historical myths about unity through public schooling that are contained in both CEP’s report and the common rhetoric of government schooling advocates.

The conclusions of Why We Fight couldn’t be more clear: Because public schooling forces all of America’s diverse peoples to support a single system of education, but allows only those groups that can accumulate the most political power to control the schools, the people are forced into constant conflict to make the schools reflect their values and desires. From battles over evolution, to dress codes, to student speech, to multiculturalism, to the place of religion in the schools, public schooling has been a constant battleground, not the gentle flame beneath the American melting pot described in CEP’s report. 

In addition to tackling the unity myth, Why We Fight finds no evidence that we need public schools to teach children how to be good citizens. Indeed, it reports that as public schooling became more entrenched and widespread over the decades, such measures of civic involvement as voting rates in presidential elections plummeted. It also shows that students in private schools tend to have greater civic knowledge than their public school peers, and are more tolerant of people different from themselves. 

In the final analysis, only where unity has already existed has public schooling avoided divisive conflict, and where there’s been great diversity, public schooling has produced great conflict. Thankfully, a truly unifying force has overcome public schooling: the shared desire for freedom among the millions of people who have landed on America’s shores, and a shared recognition that to succeed in life, diverse people must voluntarily work together. In other words, we are united in spite of coercive public schooling, not because of it.