Controversial Subjects in Involuntary Educational Institutions

Last week, the Cato Institute hosted a policy forum on teaching controversial subjects such as sex and religion in k-12 educational institutions. All of the panel members pointed out that schools needed to do a better job at improving student civic outcomes such as character skills and tolerance of others’ views; however, a couple of the speakers claimed that the issue is not a result of our traditional system of public schooling.

This assertion fails to recognize the scientific evidence and, more importantly, the clear logic of incentives.

While families have a diverse set of values and goals for their children, the political process regurgitates a uniform educational environment. Further, since children are forced to attend schools based on zip codes, the government perhaps rightfully protects various family values by avoiding controversial discussions altogether. After all, if public schools were teaching that evolution was not real, many parents would obviously be very upset.

Of course, it is not the fault of public school employees. If you or I were held accountable to standardized test scores, we would probably not allocate a lot of time towards fostering friendly debates on provocative topics. In fact, it would be a risk to do so if we taught in a state that had laws attempting to protect individual family values. It is completely rational that traditional public schools are not spending much time on controversial issues.

On the other hand, if families had the ability to opt into or out of schools based on their values and goals, the state would not need to protect them. In addition, if parents cared about civic skills such as citizenship and tolerance, they would be able to reward schools for improving the lives of their children. Further, schools would not have the perverse incentive to focus on standardized tests if they were accountable to parents instead of public officials.

The scientific evidence largely supports the theory. Dr. Patrick Wolf’s review of the evidence finds that school choice increases civic skills. Moreover, my forthcoming review of fourteen rigorous studies also shows that private school choice improves civic outcomes such as crime and tolerance.

We must not pretend that the scientific evidence is mixed on such an important topic. We also must not pretend that school systems have nothing to do with shaping skills that will impact children and societies for years to come. If we wish to live in a more tolerant society, we ought to listen to scientific evidence, clear logic, and the needs of all families.