Commentary

How to move beyond Brown

This article originally appeared in the Charlotte Post on June 10, 2004.
Since May 17, when the nation marked the 50th anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education, discussion of the Brown legacy has faded. American education, however, drives on, as does the fight for educational freedom. And while news about the struggle no longer features powerful symbols like segregated schools, National Guardsmen, or politicians standing in schoolhouse doors, reports about the continuing struggle abound.

Scanning just one day’s news makes the cause of the continuing fight clear: By their nature, public schools impose a single educational regime on all parents, children, and families. This inevitably produces conflicts in a society in which no two people have exactly the same beliefs, no two students learn in precisely the same way, but everyone must pay for the schools.

As political scientists John Chubb and Terry Moe make clear in Politics, Markets and America’s Schools: “Democracy cannot remedy the mismatch between what parents and students want and what the public schools provide. Conflict and disharmony are built into the system.”

Consider just a few of the stories appearing in major newspapers on May 25, 2004:

The Indianapolis Star reports on a struggle over corporal punishment in Indianapolis Public Schools. “Most parents who spoke at an Indianapolis Public School Board meeting Monday night said they backed spanking students and urged the district to continue to allow paddling.” Despite this, “six of the seven board members said it is time for a change…”

A San Jose Mercury News article discusses a case heading to California’s Supreme Court that pits a student’s First Amendment rights against school safety. “It started with a teenager’s foreboding poems, read by frightened classmates at a San Jose high school, leading to an expulsion and a trip to juvenile hall,” explains reporter Howard Mintz. “Now, three years later, the dark musings of a troubled child have produced an unprecedented legal clash between free speech rights and the need to deter violence in California schoolyards.”

Finally, the Christian Science Monitor offers two articles on proposed changes to federal Title IX regulations that prohibit single-sex public schools, and notes that while organizations like the American Civil Liberties Union are preparing to fight loosening of Title IX rules, at least one student in a single-sex school is “very glad Girls High exists for girls like her ‘who want to get a good education.’”

In all these stories, basic political and educational values have been forced into conflict. The needs of those who learn best in single-sex environments, for instance, are pitted against the imperative to prevent government-imposed segregation. In Indianapolis, those who want their children to attend schools with strict discipline are forced into the ring with those who wish to protect their own children from corporal punishment. Finally, a student’s constitutional right to free speech clashes with a school’s obligation to protect its students.

Of course, such clashes aren’t new. For decades, battles have raged across the country over school prayer, high-stakes testing, school financing, compulsory attendance for religious objectors, library books, reading curricula, and a litany of other issues.

So how can incessant conflict be avoided, and how can the rights of even the politically powerless be protected? The system, simply, must be transformed from one in which taxpayers fund monolithic government schools controlled by those able to wield the most political power, to one in which funds go to parents, who use them to pay for the schools that share their values and best meet the needs of their children. Parents, in other words, must be given choice.

The salutary effect this would have on many controversies is easy to imagine. In Indianapolis, parents valuing the disciplinary effects of paddling would be able to send their children to schools that use it; those opposed could choose schools that don’t. Parents concerned about security could select schools with zero-tolerance policies for threatening behavior; those favoring uninhibited free speech could choose different alternatives.

Finally, Title IX’s prohibition on single-sex public schools would be irrelevant: parents whose children learn better in single-sex schools could choose such institutions, while those who prefer coed learning could select coed schools. Segregation would be imposed on no one.

Thankfully, the days of racial segregation are behind us. The struggle for true educational freedom, however, continues, and will not end until one thing happens: our monolithic public school system is eradicated, and parents and families are given school choice.

Neal McCluskey is an education policy analyst at the Cato Institute.