Commentary

Will the Fighting Never End?

For more than five years, the people of Montgomery County, Maryland, have been at war over sex education. Last week, though, it looked like peace might be at hand when the state Board of Education refused to put the kibosh on the district’s latest sex-ed program. But don’t be fooled: The war will rage on.

The harbingers are clear. For one thing, opponents of the new curriculum — which includes discussions of sexual orientation and instructions on condom use — are contemplating taking the war to federal court, which would guarantee more conflict. In addition, the Montgomery County School Board fired a new shot last month when it instructed teachers to tell students that homosexuality is not an illness or psychological disorder.

The fundamental problem here, importantly, is not sex education. It’s that the existing public school system makes conflict inevitable, because whatever curriculum a citizen might support, the government runs the schools. In such an arrangement, only the most politically potent group can control the district and everyone else gets what they’re given, forcing people to fight if they want their values taught. And even the victors are usually hurt; for nearly five years, Montgomery children whose parents wanted them to get the new sex-ed classes couldn’t because the political war hadn’t ebbed far enough in their direction.

Thankfully, if, winner-take-all public schooling is the problem, it’s not hard to imagine the solution: Instead of forcing everyone to fund government schools, let parents choose whatever schools they want. Let all parents — not just those with the most political muscle — be winners.

Unfortunately, despite its obvious potential for defusing conflicts, many people would no doubt voice vehement objections were school choice to be proposed for Maryland.

One of the most likely objections would be that forcing taxpayers to subsidize parents’ educational choices is coercive and unfair. Some parents, after all, might choose schools to which some taxpayers, whose money they would be using, would object.

This seems reasonable until one considers a couple of key points. First, while parents would indeed be taking money to schools not explicitly approved by individual taxpayers, there is without question much less coercion when parents can choose than when no one can. Second, “choice” is not synonymous with “vouchers,” as this complaint assumes. It can also come through tax credits, which force no one to support schools with which they disagree, including, at last, the public schools to which their taxes would otherwise go.

In addition to the coercion argument, many enemies of choice would assert that ending public schooling will destroy social unity. But this ignores the obvious lessons about public school divisiveness from Montgomery County, as well as battles that have raged — or are being fought right now — in districts nationwide over issues such as Intelligent Design, the content of school library books, multicultural curricula and sundry other matters.

The unity objection also ignores something absolutely essential to American society: Freedom. The United States is supposed to be a free country, and no matter how it is presented nothing is less free than government-enforced unity.

Sadly, the people of Montgomery County are not likely to get school choice anytime soon, in large part because too many Marylanders accept specious arguments against it. As battles like Montgomery County’s continue to rage, however, and parents of all stripes get fed up, Marylanders will hopefully come to realize that choice is the only way to get what they want from public education.

Neal McCluskey is an education policy analyst at the Center for Educational Freedom and author of the report, “Why We Fight: How Public Schools Cause Social Conflict.” He is also the author of the book Feds in the Classroom: How Big Government Corrupts, Cripples, and Compromises American Education.