Commentary

Privatize the Evolution Battle

This article also appeared in the Kansas City Star.
Last week, a federal judge ruled on a nationally-watched Georgia case, in which the Cobb County school board had ordered warning stickers to be placed on the outside of biology textbooks. The stickers indicated that evolution is “a theory, not a fact.”

The decision to add labels to the textbooks sparked controversy. A group of parents who opposed the policy filed a lawsuit against the school board on the grounds that the stickers are an unconstitutional endorsement of religion.

Last Wednesday, U.S. District Judge Clarence Cooper agreed with the challengers, saying that the labels send “a message that the school board agrees with the beliefs of Christian fundamentalists and Creationists.” (The school board is appealing the ruling.)

The judge’s decision is a little ridiculous, based on the text of what the school board-supported stickers say. The entire disclaimer reads: “This textbook contains material on evolution. Evolution is a theory, not a fact, regarding the origin of living things. This material should be approached with an open mind, studied carefully and critically considered.”

The statement does not mention God or religion. It is hardly an endorsement of a belief that the world was created in six literal days. And if there is one thing progressive educators usually endorse wholeheartedly, it is “critical thinking.”

However, the sticker itself is not the real issue. Nick Matzke, a spokesman for the National Center for Science Education, identified what would have happened if his side had lost this court battle: “We would have seen it pop up all over the country.”

What is the “it” to which he referred? “It” is creationism itself. Lynn Hogue, a Georgia State University constitutional law professor, made clear that the issue is bigger than just a “critical thinking” controversy. “Anti-evolutionists can take their case to the pulpit, but they have no business making it in public school classrooms through stickers in textbooks paid for by taxpayer dollars.”

Of course, a very large percentage of the people living and paying taxes in Cobb County are Christians. Why is it acceptable to force them to use their tax dollars to teach their children something to which they strenuously object, but unacceptable to place a sticker on textbooks that asks other people to consider, even for a moment, beliefs contrary to their own?

That question gets to the crux of the problem: No matter how divergent their views and values, all Americans are forced to pay for public schools, no matter what the educators teach.

But how can millions of people get what they want out of a one-size-fits-all-so-deal-with-it system? The answer is that they cannot. And the fight over evolution is just one of numerous struggles precipitated by a system for which all must pay, but only a select few control.

This past December, for instance, a lawsuit was narrowly averted when a Wisconsin school district lifted its ban on students distributing Christmas cards with religious messages. Last May, a Kentucky girl was barred from attending her high school prom because she was wearing a dress styled after the Confederate flag. She is currently suing the school district for violating her right to free speech. Throughout the 1980s and 90s, parents and educators warred over whether phonics should be the basis for how schools taught reading.

Thankfully, there is a way for all parents — the phonics crowd, whole language enthusiasts, creationists, defenders of Darwinian dogmas, etc. — to get their way: privatization. If governments were to let parents choose their children’s schools, then fights over educational standards would disappear, becoming matters of consumer choice, not political power.

If the state of Georgia decided tomorrow to disband its public schools, divide the funds that it currently spends on education equally among school-age children, and issue a voucher to every child, we would see a lot of positive things happen. Educational controversies would be resolved between parents and educators, not by court order, parents would no longer be set against each other in a struggle to determine what their children are taught. And schools could get on with the business of educating children.

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