In Education, Democracy Is the Threat

When people hear “democracy,” they tend to get warm, fuzzy feelings. As the Century Foundation’s Richard Kahlenberg writes in an article that, among other things, portrays private school choice as a threat to democracy, “public education…was also meant to instill a love of liberal democracy: a respect for the separation of powers, for a free press and free religious exercise, and for the rights of political minorities.” The fundamental, ironic problem is that both democracy and democratically controlled public schooling are inherently at odds with the individual rights, and even separation of powers, that Kahlenberg says democracy and public schools are supposed to protect.

Let’s be clear what “democracy” means: the people collectively, rather than a single ruler or small group of rulers, make decisions for the group. We typically think of this as being done by voting, with the majority getting its way.

Certainly, it is preferable for all people to have a say in decisions that will be imposed on them than to have a dictator impose things unilaterally. But there is nothing about letting all people have a vote on imposition that protects freedom. Indeed, in a pure democracy, as long as the majority decides something, no individual rights are protected at all. The will of the majority is all that matters.

We’ve seen basic rights and equality under the law perpetually and unavoidably violated by democratically controlled public schooling. It cannot be otherwise: At its core, a single system of government schools—be it a district, state, or federal system—can never serve all, diverse people equally. It must make decisions about whose values, histories, and culture will and will not be taught, as well as what students can wear, what they can say, and what they can do, in order to function.

Public schooling since the days of Horace Mann has found it impossible to uphold religious freedom and equality. Mann himself was constantly assailed by people who felt that by trying to make public schools essentially lowest-common-denominator Protestant institutions, he was throwing out religion or making the schools de facto Unitarian (his denomination). Mann, in response, promised that the Protestant Bible would always be used in public schools. Indeed, Protestantism was often thought essential to being a good American, including supportive of democracy, which meant that if the public schools were to serve their civic purpose they could not treat religious minorities equally, especially Roman Catholics, who were suspected of taking their political orders from the Pope in Rome.

Today, after more than a century of even deadly conflict over religion, the public schools are no longer de facto Protestant, but instead may legally have no connection that could appear to be advancing religion, right down, often, to speeches by individual students at events such as graduation ceremonies or athletic contests. This inherently renders religious people second-class citizens—any values are fair game in public schools except for theirs—while also curbing basic expression rights.

Of course, the inherent inequality of public schooling is not restricted to religion. In a public school a teacher, committee, school board, or other government actor must decide what aspects of history will be taught or literature read. This requires that government elevate some peoples’ speech and perspectives, while deeming others’ essentially unworthy. As a result, we have perpetual battles that tear at the social fabric over which books—The Bluest Eye, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian—should or should not be read in class or over whose history should be taught, and the losers are rendered unequal under the law.

Public schooling has also constantly intruded on separation of powers. Power is first supposed to be separated among levels of government, with local control often considered ideal for democratic control of schools. But local control has been shrunk as states and the federal government have stepped in to stop discrimination, or because districts have been deemed “in need of improvement.” State authority has been circumscribed for similar reasons. And the separation of federal powers—legislative, executive, and judicial—was shredded under President Obama when he offered states waivers out of the No Child Left Behind Act’s most onerous provisions, but only if they agreed to conditions unilaterally determined by his administration.

Alas, such compression and destruction of subsidiarity is almost guaranteed with democratically controlled schooling. Why? Because if people in a political minority—or even a majority unable to accumulate sufficient political power—cannot get the democratic government closest to it to provide the education they want, they can only with huge difficulty—moving their homes—meaningfully help themselves. They have basically no option but to appeal to a “higher” level of government. And when no level of democratic governance seems to respond, they feel compelled to allow a single person—a mayor, governor, or president—to take over.

The good news is that American government is not supposed to be grounded in democracy. It is grounded in liberty—the freedom of individuals to govern their own lives, and to combine however they freely choose. “Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” are laid out as “unalienable rights” in the Declaration of Independence, and they, not “democracy,” are what government is created to protect.

Ironically, the educational system that is consistent with the liberty on which the country is based is the one that Kahlenberg and other government schooling advocates argue is fundamentally at odds with American values: school choice. And their major worries, at least at first-blush, are not unreasonable: people have a tendency to associate with people like themselves, potentially “balkanizing” the country, and private schools do not have to teach values like religious tolerance. But first-blush is not reality.

First, of course, the protection of individual rights that Kahlenberg wishes to defend is sacrificed the moment people are compelled to fund a government-run school. One school cannot teach both that we were created by God and that we were not. It cannot put even a tiny fraction of all literature on class syllabi. It cannot have a dress code and allow total freedom of expression. The only possible way for government to treat all diverse people equally in education is to enable them to choose what they will teach and learn.

But private schools, especially if they stand for specific beliefs, will fail to promote tolerance and teach civic values, right? Wrong. Quite possibly because chosen schools, especially private ones, are free to say “we stand for this” and “we do not stand for that, choose us if you agree,” research suggests that they are more effective at inculcating the civic knowledge and behaviors, like voting, volunteering in one’s community, and tolerance of those with whom they disagree, than are public schools. Why? Quite possibly because everyone in the school—both educators and families—voluntarily agree to a set of beliefs and standards a school promotes, allowing more rigor and clarity in teaching history, civics, or personal behavior. Public schools, in contrast, must work with diverse populations, and to avoid wrenching conflict and the distinctly un-American imposition of one group’s views on another, will often choose lowest-common-denominator content that may offend few people, but also convey little of clarity or use. Students in private schools might also cherish individual liberties a bit more than those in public schools because they see theirs curbed by the public schools.

Then there’s this: While the evidence is strong that in myriad ways people tend to prefer to associate with others like themselves—and that government can do little to change that—people also want to have commonalities with larger society. It simply makes their lives easier: Speaking the common language makes daily life smoother. Adopting the common culture makes one feel more at home. All these things make succeeding economically easier. So people will seek out commonality on their own. This means that public schooling, or any other government effort to impose commonality, may well be unnecessary, while definitely being inherently conflict-fostering and rights-trampling.

“Democracy” is a confusion-enshrouded, contradictory weapon that has been successfully employed against freedom in education for too long. It is time to reassert liberty as the fundamental American value and cease letting it be trampled by, and for, public schooling.