Bathroom Battles: Why We Need School Choice

North Carolina governor Pat McCrory (R) has just responded to the federal government’s threat to punish the state over its law prohibiting local governments from allowing transgendered people to choose their bathrooms: We’re suing!

Central to the nation’s bathroom war – which is one among sundry, seemingly endless culture wars – are the public schools. They are mentioned specifically in the Tar Heel State’s embattled law, and schools have been the sites of several lawsuits across the country over who gets to decide where students go to the bathroom or change their clothes. Of course, as Cato’s Public Schooling Battle Map reveals in stark detail, just like the nation, our schools are constant battlegrounds in the culture wars, and our children are essentially innocent civilians with political, social, and cultural bombs going off all around them.

At issue in North Carolina are really two things directly applicable to education: level of public school control, and private rights.

The immediate issue is whether a state should be able to make its own laws without the federal government overruling them. The feds have a legitimate claim, under the Fourteenth Amendment, to do what they are doing – attempting to prevent discrimination by state or local governments – but there is also a good case to be made that there are competing rights at stake – privacy versus nondiscrimination – and perhaps neither should take clear-cut precedence. Moreover, even if it has the authority to intervene, it may be best if Washington allowed social evolution to occur gradually rather than imposing it as people deal with what is, it seems, a pretty new idea: a person should choose which restroom or locker room to use. Of course, North Carolina’s law applies one rule to all municipalities, also potentially curbing natural societal evolution.

Private action versus government rule is also in play, but probably should not be. While government-imposed discrimination cannot be escaped, far less compelling is prohibiting private choice of policies or practices. If a public school has discriminatory policies you are stuck. If a private school does, in a school-choice program you can seek out something else without leaving all your tax dollars behind.

As important, if not more so, is that allowing private entities to choose their own policies is consistent with individual liberty, including freedom of association and religion, while it is much better suited to enabling people with competing values to peacefully co-exist. There is no zero-sum contest: Those who want an open bathroom policy could choose schools in which all the staff and families also embraced it, while those feeling more comfortable with bathrooms and locker rooms restricted by biological sex could go to schools with like-minded people.

Perhaps the best examples of educational choice helping to bring peace and balance rights have been in many European countries, where religious conflicts in schools abated as governments decided to fund choices of Protestant, Catholic, nonsectarian, or other institutions. Getting to the place of greater peace requires something difficult – accepting that all people should be able to live as they want as long as they do not force themselves on others, and even if we do not like the choices they make – but living and letting live is the foundation of a free society.

Want peace in North Carolina? Allowing state and local decision making may help. But letting people freely choose is the ultimate key.