Yesterday, FoxNews.com posted a story on what appears to be a growing problem for public school systems across the country: accommodating Muslim holidays. Unfortunately, the report didn't contain the solution to the problem. It did, though, contain a very succinct discussion of the root of the problem; an example of the good intent that causes people to ignore the problem; and the kind of "solution" that is ultimately at odds with the most basic of American values.
A quote from New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg captured the essence of the problem:
One of the problems you have with a diverse city is that if you close the schools for every single holiday, there won't be any school.
There you have the basic conundrum in a nutshell: Whenever you have a diverse population -- whether in a hamlet, city, state, or nation -- and everyone has to support a single system of government schools, you cannot possibly treat all people -- or even most of them -- equally. Either there are winners and losers, or nobody gets anything.
Understanding why public schooling can't handle diversity -- why, simply, one size can't fit all -- is really basic common sense. So why isn't there more outrage over, or even just recognition of, the utter illogic of our education system? Mohamed Elibiary, President and CEO of the Freedom and Justice Foundation, illustrated the attitude that likely causes lots of Americans to wear blinders:
I'm a little torn. I want Muslims to be getting the same recognition as other Americans, but at the same time I don't want to see public education systems be a battleground between religious identities, because then we're missing the point of why we have a public education system to begin with.
No doubt many people truly believe as Elibiary does: that a major purpose of public schooling is to bring diverse people together and, by doing so, unify them. It's a fine intention, but also a classic case of intent not matching reality. Indeed, the reality is often very much the opposite. Rather than unifying people, public schooling has repeatedly forced religious conflict (as well as conflict over race, ethnicity, political philosophy, curriculum, and on and on).
It started almost on Day One, when Horace Mann, a Unitarian, was locked in conflict with Calvinists over what kind of Protestantism the state's nascent "common schools" would teach. When Roman Catholics began arriving in America in large numbers, battles -- sometimes deadly -- erupted over who would get what kind of Christianity in the public schools. When Tennessee outlawed the teaching of evolution, the Scopes "Monkey Trial" fired the first big blast in the war over the teaching of human origins, a fight we are still very much in. In the latter part of the twentieth century, the fighting moved to what, if any, religious expression is permissible in public schools. And now, we're getting fired up over whose holidays will get the most deference from government schools. It almost seems like war without end.
Finally, the article gropes at -- but doesn't grab -- the solution to our education and diversity problem. Says Georgetown University professor Bradley Blakeman:
That's the beauty of having a school district responsive to the localities as opposed to blanket rules that affect multiple jurisdictions, states or even countries. One size doesn't fit all when it comes to these kinds of rules and regulations. We're not a homogeneous nation, which makes us so great.
Blakeman is heading in the right direction (even as federal policy pushes us the opposite way): The closer that control of education gets to individual people, the more easily it can be tailored to unique needs, values, and desires. Unfortunately, Blakeman fails to identify the obvious last step: completely decoupling government funding from provision of education. In other words, instituting universal educational choice. Making matters worse, Blakeman for all intents and purposes concludes that as long as decisions are made at the local level, and the majority gets its way, everything is fine:
A school should reflect the beliefs and practices of the community that they serve. And if school boards are sensitive to their populations, that's fine, provided the decisions of the board reflect the majority opinion of its community.
It may sound harsh, but one way to describe this is simply "tyranny of the majority" -- whatever the majority wants, it gets, as long as it is the local majority. It's a solution that completely ignores that ours is not supposed to be a nation of majority rule, but rule of law that protects individual freedom. And, of course, one of the most basic protections is the prohibition on government tipping the scales in favor of one religion, two religions, or no religion at all.
This solution also fails, by the way, to address the problem at hand: School districts -- not states or Washington -- having to accommodate diverse populations. In other words, "local control" is ultimately no solution at all.
Universal choice is, quite simply, the only system of education compatible with the most basic of American values -- individual liberty -- and the only way to avoid constant, divisive battles over who will get what out of the schools. Hopefully, people will come to realize that before our conflicts get even worse.