Commentary

Case Shows Need for More Freedom in Education

This article appeared in the Kansas City Star, December 25, 2005.
“Intelligent design,” the notion that life on Earth was authored by a supernatural being, came up lemons last week in a Pennsylvania federal court.

Or rather, the Dover public school district’s endorsement of I.D. came up against the “Lemon test” used by courts to assess church/state entanglement, and flunked.

This, obviously, is a defeat for intelligent design’s adherents and a victory for proponents of evolution.

It is also a loss for America.

That’s not to say that intelligent design should be incorporated into public school science classes. Judge John Jones, who presided in the case, ruled correctly that intelligent design is religion, not science.

The problem is that his ruling can do little to end the battle over evolution versus creationism, because it doesn’t address the root cause of that battle: our monolithic government-sanctioned schools.

It’s that simple. By combining a pluralistic society with a one-size-fits-all education system, we have created a perpetual conflict machine.

There is no way, within the structure of our existing system, for people to get the sort of education they want for their own children without having to force their preferences on their neighbors.

Voila. Instant conflict.

Even the First Amendment’s proscription against the government establishment of religion has not prevented us from fighting over the teaching of human origins in our government schools for close to a century.

And a host of other flash points in the culture war lack even that legal arbiter to facilitate a settlement. Consider sex education, textbook and library book selection, the treatment of homosexuality, “whole language” versus phonics, etc.

But just as the root cause of the problem is simple, so is the solution. America will continue to be a pluralistic society for the foreseeable future, but we can easily reform our schools so that parents can obtain the education they value without being compelled to impose it on others. It’s called parental choice.

By offering tax relief to middle-income families, and tuition scholarships to those with lower incomes, we could bring independent schooling within reach of every family.

Such a system can be designed, using tax credits for both personal use and for donations to private scholarship funds, in such a way that no government money is spent on education.

Both types of programs already exist, independently of one another, in several states. By combining and expanding them, we could eliminate virtually all of our long-running education conflicts.

There are a few common objections to this idea. Some argue that state-run schools are necessary to foster social harmony or democracy, but the falsity — and indeed the irony — of this notion should be evident from the current context.

A fair number of Americans are probably not feeling particularly harmonious in the wake of Judge Jones’ ruling, and many of the other vitriolic conflicts dividing Red and Blue America are also clearly caused by the official government status of public schools.

As for being indispensable to American democracy, state-run schooling did not come along until the latter half of the 19th century, jumping — as the late economist E.G. West put it — into the saddle of an already galloping horse.

Others argue that some areas of knowledge are simply too important to be left to parental discretion, and that the (presumably all-wise and all-knowing) state must step in to ensure that these are taught to all children.

One cannot help feeling that this statement should be followed by a brisk clicking together of the heels.

In addition to being patently un-American, such an authoritarian approach to education is both ineffective and shortsighted.

Evolution has been the official government curriculum for several decades, and only a third of Americans think it is well-supported by the evidence. Slightly more than half adhere to the biblical creation story. So we’ve tried the official knowledge thing, and it doesn’t work.

Would-be instructional dictators should also remember that they will not always be the ones seated in the back of the flag-adorned staff car. While today’s official dogma may delight them, tomorrow’s could easily appall.

Surely, in the freest country on Earth, it’s time to give educational freedom a chance.

Andrew J. Coulson is director of the Cato Institute’s Center for Educational Freedom.