Commentary

Choice Would Take the Fighting Out of Schooling Our Kids

Readers of The Arizona Republic this year have witnessed writers, including Arizona’s superintendent of public instruction, lobbing charges of racism at each other in an education battle royale.

Many have no doubt found the fight troubling and will likely find it even more upsetting to learn that these conflicts are inevitable in any school system for which many must pay, but only a few can control. Thankfully, though elusive, peace can be attained.

The war of words in The Republic began with Linda Valdez’s Jan. 29 column (“Let’s ditch ’50s mentality: Ethnic studies aren’t ‘frivolous’ but important to our children’s education”), in which she upbraided Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Horne for arguments put forward by Eric Bristow, an attorney working for Horne, in U.S. District Court proceedings to determine if Arizona is adequately funding instruction for non-English-speaking students.

According to Valdez, Bristow claimed the Tucson Unified School District was spending money on “Raza” studies, which explore Mexican culture and history, when it should have been using the funds to teach English literature and other subjects Bristow deemed critical.

“It made me think of a time when White men made all the rules,” Valdez wrote, “and none of them seemed to have the cultural awareness to know that the name of the Lone Ranger’s trusted companion, Tonto, means ‘stupid.’ “

Valdez’s piece prompted numerous letters to the editor, including a lengthy reply from Horne himself, in which he took umbrage at Valdez’s accusations of intolerance, and leveled some charges of his own.

“I have firsthand accounts from teachers that ‘Raza’ programs teach kids that they live in occupied Mexico and warn them to ‘not fall for the White man’s traps,’ ” Horne wrote. “In my book, this is racism.”

So who is right, Valdez or Horne?

The answer is neither, because their dispute centers on conflicting preferences and ideals, not objective truths or untruths.

Is it wrong, for instance, for parents of Mexican heritage to ask that their children be taught Mexican history and culture in the schools for which they must pay? Not by any reasonable moral standard. Conversely, is it improper for parents who want their children to learn more traditional American history to demand it from the schools? Again, no.

Which brings us to the fundamental reason why public schooling - by which I mean a system of government-run schools that all taxpayers are bound by law to support - yields constant conflict: Although all people have equally valid claims to have their views taught in the schools, no unitary system can ever honor them all. The unhappy result of this is that people are forced to engage in regular political combat to make theirs the values taught.

So how do we end the fighting? The terms of truce are disarmingly simple: Let parents choose schools that meet their desires.

Of course, many people think that “school choice” is synonymous with “vouchers,” and reasonably object that vouchers themselves force taxpayers to support educational choices with which they may not agree.

Thankfully, choice can be attained through other means, such as tax credits for individuals who pay for private schools, or for individuals and corporations who fund scholarships for low-income students.

And the good news is that with several tax credits already in place, such as the state’s new corporate tuition tax credit, and its small personal credit for donations to scholarship-granting organizations, Arizona is closer to peace than most other states. These credits must eventually be expanded to encompass all Arizonans to bring widespread peace, but the building blocks are there.

In addition to those who object to vouchers, others oppose school choice on grounds that even if no one were compelled to support someone else’s educational decisions, some schools might continue to teach material that is simply unacceptable.

Based on Horne’s letter, for instance, one could easily imagine a school that embraced a Raza curriculum being so designated. But opponents of choice often invent bogeymen to defeat it, and with the exception of instructing students to kill or inflict physical harm on others, few ideas should be considered legally intolerable in a society predicated on freedom.

Finally, some object to choice on the grounds that if it were made universal, society would be reduced to isolated, bickering groups, rather than a unified whole. But as the exchange between Valdez and Horne makes clear, we’re not so unified as it is.

Moreover, as I explain in my study, both American history and international examples prove that school choice does not result in cultural catastrophe. Indeed, it is the only way to deliver education consistent with the one quality that really does unify all Americans: a shared desire for individual freedom. If Arizonans can make that the foundation of their education system, their children will be better off, and there’ll be a lot less to fight about.

Neal McCluskey is a policy analyst at the Center for Educational Freedom and author of the new study “Why We Fight: How Public Schools Create Social Conflict.”