Commentary

In Book-Banning Story, the System Is Scrooge

This appeared in the DC Examiner, December 29, 2005.
The spirit of Christmas came to us this year, but there is little peace for the people of Carroll County, Md. Instead of exchanging season’s greetings, they are fighting over middle school libraries and “The Earth, My Butt and Other Big Round Things,” a teen-oriented novel peppered with obscenities and sexual references.

The conflict began a few months ago when a group of parents, upset that the book was in the district’s middle school libraries, called for its removal. The uproar escalated in October when a committee of parents, students and district employees ruled against the parents’ request.

Despite the setback, opponents of the book persevered. They asked District Superintendent Charles Ecker to personally remove it from school libraries. After reviewing the volume in question, Ecker did as they asked. That, in turn, set off protests by students and provoked accusations of censorship from such heavy hitters as the American Civil Liberties Union. The conflict is far from over: Ecker has agreed to reconsider removal of the book.

Regardless of what Ecker ends up doing, the ACLU is right: Government cannot pick and choose what is or is not acceptable speech. But the parents who called for the book’s removal are also right: Just as government may not censor speech, it may not force people to support speech they find offensive.

Think about how public schooling works: All taxpayers must fund a single system, but only those with the political power to elect school board majorities or exercise control in some other way are able to ensure that they get what they want out of it. Whether selecting library books or choosing math curricula, the most powerful plurality rules, no matter how repugnant the rest of the community might find its decisions.

This is patently unjust, of course, but America’s public school system could not function otherwise. As long as government provides a single system of schools, only one set of values can hold sway; individual rights must be sacrificed.

And that’s not all. In addition to being unfair, the system forces everyone in it to engage in constant political combat, lest their own rights be cast aside. Just consider how many times communities have been torn asunder by book-banning controversies like Carroll County’s. Beverly Becker, executive director of American Library Association, has received reports of 547 book challenges in 2004, which she estimates to be only a quarter of all the challenges that occurred last year.

And book banning is just one of countless sources of conflict. In Montgomery County, parents have been at each other’s throats for years over sex education, a story that has repeated itself across the nation for decades. And then there’s intelligent design, which has sparked acrimonious hearings and court cases from Pennsylvania to Kansas and is really just the latest front in a war over the teaching of human origins that has raged since the 1920s.

Thankfully, public education can be reformed. We can ensure that every child receives an education, but without state governments or school districts running the schools - the ultimate cause of our educational warfare. School choice is the key.

Arguably the best-known mechanisms for providing choice are school vouchers, which help to douse the flames of strife by empowering parents to seek out schools that share their values. Even better are tax credit programs that allow parents to subtract education expenses from the taxes they owe or allow taxpayers to redirect part of their taxes to organizations that provide scholarships to the poor. In these programs, absolutely no coercion is involved because only those taxpayers who freely choose to support parents’ schooling decisions do so.

Unfortunately for the people of Carroll County, it is probably too late for choice to salvage their holiday goodwill this year. But maybe in the future, through choice, Carroll County and countless other communities can finally have some peace.

Neal McCluskey is an education policy analyst at the Cato Institute’s Center for Educational Freedom.