Education and Child Policy

January 15, 2021 5:15PM

Taking Stock of America’s Public Schooling Battles

Battle Map 2021

It is probably fair to say that Americans are highly polarized right now. Public schooling is likely a reflection of, and contributor to, that division. A reflection, because political control of schools is likely to replicate the divisions and animosities of the electorate. A cause, because public schooling requires people with diverse views and backgrounds to engage in political combat to determine whose values, views on history, and more, will be taught.

Cato’s Public Schooling Battle Map catalogues values and identity‐​based conflicts – highly personal battlegrounds versus, say, fights over school budgets – in public schools. We started documenting such conflicts in the 2005-06 school year, but it was a few years later that we started regular, consistent collection and launched the Map. What follows is a basic summary of what the Map contains.

Note that the Map almost certainly under counts conflicts, perhaps significantly. Entries are only obtained from searches of media reports. That means the Map does not include (1) any battles that generate media reports we do not see, (2) battles that occur but receive no media coverage, and (3) people who feel aggrieved by school policies or curricula but do not challenge them in open forums. Also, the years reflect when a conflict began. Years before 2006 with very few battles contain only conflicts we discovered in later years but that originated in those years.

Battle Types

Battles are divided into nine types, with all involving sides that have reasonable, yet opposed, concerns. Note that many battles could fit under several categories – we choose the one that seems most central. For instance, a battle over a valedictorian mentioning God in a graduation speech could fall under “freedom of expression” or “religion,” but would typically be classified under “religion” because it is the religious nature of the expression that is at the heart of the conflict.

  1. Freedom of expression: Conflicts typically pitting the speech rights of students against schools’ need to maintain order and create coherent cultures
  2. Religion: Conflicts that pit explicitly religious values or expressions against school policies that are often aimed at remaining religiously neutral
  3. Curriculum: Conflicts over what is taught based on disagreements about propriety or accuracy. These can include conflicts over morally controversial topics such as sex education if the objections are not explicitly religious or moral, such as age inappropriateness
  4. Reading Material: Conflicts over books that are present in school libraries, on reading lists, or assigned for classes
  5. Race/​Ethnicity: Conflicts over the ability of people of different races or ethnicities to control their own schools or obtain instruction or treatment tailored to their group. Does not include accusations of racism or unequal treatment unless schools maintain that they have the disputed policies for arguably laudable reasons, such as remaining colorblind
  6. Moral Values: Conflicts over what is “right” and “wrong” without an explicit religious connection, such as over corporal punishment or condom distribution
  7. Gender Equity: Conflicts over the treatment of students by gender, including debates about proper attire for girls, and bathroom access policies for transgender students
  8. Sexuality: Conflicts specifically about sexual behavior or orientation
  9. Human Origins: Conflicts over the teaching of how life originated, and how it reached its current form. Typically involve evolution and creationism or intelligent design theory

Total Battles


By Type

Public schooling battles by type

By Year

Public schooling battles by year

By State

Public schooling battles by state

Total Districts with Battles


State‐​level Battles



Whether values and identity‐​based conflict in public schooling has been increasing or decreasing is unclear. Many factors play into what the Map contains, including COVID-19 dominating education policy debates in 2020, and changing collection intensity after the Map’s early years. But one thing is clear: public schooling does not simply bring diverse people together and make them a harmonious whole. It is the arena – and quite possibly the cause – of much social conflict.

January 8, 2021 10:23AM

A Brief Assessment of DeVos’s Ed Sec Tenure

Ed Secretary Betsy DeVos official picture

Betsy DeVos resigned last night as U.S. Secretary of Education. She cited this week’s storming of the Capitol, which she wrote was fueled by President Trump’s incendiary rhetoric and was an “inflection point” for her.

Whether DeVos should have left the administration sooner, especially as her boss became more dismissive of electoral reality, may weigh heavily on her legacy. But based on education policy, DeVos’s tenure overall was a good one. Not great – the administration did not work with Congress to substantially shrink the largely unconstitutional federal presence in education – but DeVos recognized federal excesses and launched no grand scheme, like No Child Left Behind or Race to the Top, to enlarge them.

She, of course, also strongly supported school choice, which is absolutely the direction American education needs to go. That said, outside of Washington, DC, military installations, and Native‐​American schooling, education is not within the federal purview. Unfortunately, DeVos did promote a national scholarship tax credit which would not pass constitutional muster and would threaten to inject federal regulations into private schools. But she tried to make it as Constitution‐​friendly as possible, avoiding direct federal funding and allowing states to opt‐​in.

Secretary DeVos also worked hard to protect oft‐​forgotten taxpayers, as well as sometimes dubiously targeted institutions, when it came to matters such as student loans. This earned her a lot of flak, especially her reticence to forgive all of the debt of students who attended colleges found guilty of fraudulent practices. DeVos held that if borrowers had benefited from their education they should not receive full forgiveness. This was an understandably controversial position, but her detractors rarely acknowledged that her motives may have been good: to protect taxpayers, who have no say in the loans, from being the ultimate losers. She also fought for the due process rights of college students accused of sexual misconduct. Again, a difficult stance, but one rooted in basic American principles of justice.

Betsy DeVos had a job that should not exist. She recognized that fact and largely acted accordingly. She also championed school choice and criticized public schooling, which threatened a lot of the education establishment that is omnipresent in DC. Those positions garnered her a lot of sometimes vitriolic enmity, but on the whole hers was perhaps as good a tenure as a constitutionalist, and realist about the often deleterious effects of federal education policy, could hope for after decades of federal expansion.

December 10, 2020 4:55PM

New York vs. Florida

New York Governor Andrew Cuomo is saying that the state will “have to raise taxes” to close its budget deficit. But New York does not “have to” do that at all. Instead, it can and should cut spending.

As a share of income, New York state and local taxes are already the highest in the nation. Cuomo received an “F” on Cato’s fiscal report for his tax and spending increases.

New York government spending is outrageously high. The chart shows Census data for total state and local government spending in New York and Florida. Florida’s population is larger than New York’s, yet in 2018, New York governments spent $367 billion while Florida’s spent $188 billion. Manhattan is expensive, but it accounts for less than 10 percent of New York’s population.

So rather than raising taxes again, New York leaders should study why their government costs twice as much as Florida’s and find ways to make government leaner and more efficient.


Spending twice as much on the government is staggering. High spending means high taxes, and that is partly why New Yorkers are leaving the state in droves for Florida and other lower‐​tax states.

The drain of people and business out of New York is killing the state. The more they raise taxes, the more move out, and the more the tax base shrinks. It’s a vicious cycle, and the only way out is to downsize the government.

What does New York spend all that money on?

This article examines spending in the two states. New York spends far more than Florida on worker pay, retirement benefits, K-12 education, welfare, transit, housing, and interest on debt. This article examines government employment in the two states.

Does New York’s higher spending produce better services? I don’t think so, but that’s what New York leaders should be studying. U.S. News ranks Florida’s K-12 schools higher than New York’s. Reason ranks Florida’s highways a bit better than New York’s.

New Yorkers enjoy less personal freedom than residents of any other state, so they are paying more to be less free.

Threatening more tax hikes is a damaging cop out. It won’t solve any problems and just prompt more people to leave. New York leaders should serve the public for a change and reform government to cut costs.

November 23, 2020 3:59PM

Will Biden Turn the Education Department over to the Teachers Unions?

President‐​elect Biden is rumored to be considering a teachers union head to be his secretary of education. Since the Education Department was essentially created by the National Education Association, this is basically just confirming their control. It’s understandable that Biden would promise to name a teacher for this post. After all, who knows education better than teachers? It no doubt sounds good to voters. But imagine a candidate promising to name a defense contractor as secretary of defense, an oil company CEO as secretary of energy, or a real estate developer as HUD secretary. For each of those the candidate could plausibly raise the same argument, that few others would know more about the subject. But there would be a lot more public skepticism about naming a provider of the service to run the federal department in those cases.

We didn’t always have a federal Department of Education, of course. It only goes back to 1979. Education was historically a matter for local communities, with increasing state‐​level involvement over the years. What happened in 1979? As the Oxford University historian Gareth Davies explains,

[President Jimmy] Carter would not have fought for the bill, and most likely would not even have endorsed it, had it not been for the unprecedented influence that the National Education Association enjoyed within his White House. In earlier years, education client groups had come to enjoy great influence within Congress, the judiciary, and the federal bureaucracy. Now, it seemed, the most important single such group had gained considerable influence within the White House, too.

Those changes were a result of the transformation of the NEA from a carefully bipartisan professional association to a politically active labor union, and in particular its heavy involvement in the 1976 Democratic presidential primaries.

Not everyone supported the establishment of the federal department, even on the Democratic side of the aisle. The American Federation of Teachers, fearing that the department would be controlled by its rival, the NEA, organized opponents. Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, who was close to AFT leader Albert Shanker, led Senate opposition and called Carter’s bill “a backroom deal born out of squalid politics.”

The New York Times editorialized, “The supporters of a separate department [of education] speak vaguely of the need for a federal policy on education. We believe that they misunderstand the nature of American education, which is characterized by diversity. The legitimate centers of gravity are, and ought to remain, in the educational authorities of the states and the local communities.”

Many such critics warned that a secretary of education would turn into a national minister of education. Rep. John Erlenborn (R-IL), for instance, wrote, “There would be interference in textbook choices, curricula, staffing, salaries, the make‐​up of student bodies, building designs, and all other irritants that the government has invented to harass the population. These decisions which are now made in the local school or school district will slowly but surely be transferred to Washington.”

Such concerns were not limited to Republicans. Rep. Patricia Schroeder (D‐​Colo.) predicted, “No matter what anyone says, the Department of Education will not just write checks to local school boards. They will meddle in everything. I do not want that.” David W. Breneman and Noel Epstein wrote in the Washington Post, “Establishing a cabinet‐​level department is a back‐​door way of creating a national education policy.” And Richard W. Lyman, president of Stanford University, testified before Congress that “the two‐​hundred‐​year‐​old absence of a Department of Education is not the result of simple failure during all that time. On the contrary, it derives from the conviction that we do not want the kinds of educational systems that such arrangements produce.” A Washington Post editorial raised the fear that “by sheer bureaucratic momentum, [a department of education] would inevitably erode local and state control over public schools.” Another Post editorial reminded us, “Education remains a primary function of the states and localities, which is surely one reason this country has not had a national ministry of education as part of its political tradition. We think it is a tradition worth holding on to.”

The critics failed, of course. Congress and President Carter created a federal Department of Education. And over the past 40 years, what have been the results? Neal McCluskey wrote in the Cato Handbook for Policymakers:

To assess learning in the modern era, the most consistent, national measure we have is the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) Long‐​Term Trend Assessment. The assessment is a federal test given to a nationally representative sample of students — but without stakes attached and, thus, insulated against “gaming” — which has remained largely consistent since the 1970s. What does it show? Looking at 17‐​year‐​olds over the decades, achievement is almost completely flat, even though — as Figure 47.1 shows — the inflation‐​adjusted expenditure on the average student’s education has nearly tripled. That trend has been largely echoed by SAT scores; after controlling for numerous variables including self‐​selection of test takers, we see that those scores have also stagnated.

How about learning? Well, Neal offers this chart, which ought to be the starting point for any discussion of schools and school funding:

Change in NAEP Long‐​Term Trend Results (17‐​Year‐​Olds) vs. Change in Total Spending for a Child’s K–12 Education, in 2014 dollars, by Graduation Year, 1970–2012


Spending on schools has risen steadily. Test scores have been flat. And indeed the federal government has gradually extended its intervention in local schools. As far back as 1994 the Government Accountability Office estimated that although the federal government provided less than 10 percent of K–12 education financing, federal regulations caused more than 40 percent of the administrative burden felt by state education agencies. Such burdens and strings have only increased, in areas from curriculum to bathroom access, most recently under both the Obama and Trump administrations.

Education is not mentioned in the Constitution of the United States, and for good reason. The Founders wanted most aspects of life managed by those who were closest to them, either by state or local government or by families, businesses, and other elements of civil society. Certainly they saw no role for the federal government in education. Once upon a time, not so very many years ago, Congress understood that. The History of the Formation of the Union under the Constitution, published by the United States Constitution Sesquicentennial Commission, under the direction of the president, the vice president, and the Speaker of the House in 1943, contained this exchange in a section titled ‘‘Questions and Answers Pertaining to the Constitution’’:

Q. Where, in the Constitution, is there mention of education?

A. There is none; education is a matter reserved for the states.

The greatest service Congress and the Biden administration could perform for American education would be to rekindle the original understanding of the delegated, enumerated, and thus limited powers of the federal government and to return control and financing of education to states, localities, and families. Failing that, the administration should stop imposing new burdens and controls on 15,000 local school districts.

November 19, 2020 10:55AM

Massive Student Debt Cancellation Would Just Be Wrong

University of Central Florida Rec Center

With Senator Chuck Schumer calling on President‐​elect Joe Biden to enact massive federal student debt cancellation by executive fiat, perhaps we need another reminder why such a policy would be terrible.

As I am pressed for time with other projects, I’m going to make this short.

First a chart, from the Urban Institute, laying out who has most of the student debt (hint: not low‐​income folks):

Student debt by income quartile

Next, a reminder from Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce that the average person with a bachelor’s degree can expect to make around $1 million more over their lifetime than someone with only a high school diploma. Oh, and a lot of debt is for graduate studies, like law and medical school, which lead to even bigger lifetime bucks:

Earnings by degree

Finally, here is a host of links to on‐​campus pools and lazy rivers:

What’s the point of all this? Massive loan cancellation would primarily help well‐​off people, and have taxpayers bear even more of the cost of “education” that for many students is also kind of “luxury cruising.” We would be socializing costs for huge private profit, which would not only be bad education policy, fostering even worse tuition inflation & empty credential demands, it would be patently unjust.

November 5, 2020 2:29PM

Are Foster Care Agencies Entitled To Religious Accommodation?

Yesterday the Supreme Court heard oral argument in Fulton v. City of Philadelphia, the case over whether Philadelphia can exclude from its foster care program agencies like Catholic Social Services that decline to certify home studies for gay couples. Here’s the reaction of my colleague Ilya Shapiro in a statement:

In the biggest case the Supreme Court has heard since Amy Coney Barrett joined the bench, it was heartening to see the justices struggle to do right by religious believers, members of the LGBTQ community, and, perhaps most importantly here, the kids in desperate need of fostering and adoption. Unlike how many commentators have characterized the case, Fulton v. City of Philadelphia doesn’t present a direct clash between religious liberty and equality principles. As Justice Kavanaugh pointed out, no gay couple has ever been turned away by Catholic Social Services, there are 30 agencies providing screening and placement services, and CSS has no problem referring adoptive parents to those agencies. Moreover, the relevant city contract allows for exemptions from the relevant antidiscrimination provision at the sole discretion of a commissioner—so why not use that wiggle room here? This case is different both from the direct government provision of a service or license (as in Obergefell) or the thorny issues surrounding “public accommodations” (as in Masterpiece Cakeshop). There should be a way for CSS to continue to provide its valuable services, and for the rights of same‐​sex couples to be observed, without either cutting away First Amendment freedoms or Fourteenth Amendment equal protection. It’s a good thing that at least a majority of the Supreme Court is likely to find that path.

I’m on pretty much the same page as Ilya policy‐​wise. What makes this such a knotty case is that constitutional principle doesn’t always map well onto good policy. As I wrote in February when the Court agreed to hear Fulton:

It’s far from clear on what issues the Court will choose to resolve the case.

It might focus on whether the city of Philadelphia overstepped the Court’s Masterpiece Cakeshop guidance by showing improper animus against religion, and if so whether it matters (as the Third Circuit thought it did) that the city would have turned away a secular agency that followed the same placement policy. Or, with more dramatic implications, the Court might revisit its Employment Division v. Smith precedent, which holds that the Constitution affords no right to religious exemption from otherwise neutral and generally applicable laws.

Deciding the case on the basis of one‐​off Masterpiece Cakeshop animus would allow the Court to dodge the issues for now. But the plaintiffs’ evidence on that point was found insufficient by courts below. Another off‐​ramp would be to accept the plaintiffs’ theory that signing off on a home study counts as compelled speech, but that one — along with a number of the other arguments for the Fulton side — doesn’t work well if you accept the city’s description of CSS’s role as that of a city contractor standing in the city’s shoes in performing a service the city could might instead have performed directly itself.

Perhaps for that reason, conservative Justices repeatedly probed the question of whether the city’s rules might be recharacterized as a form of licensing as opposed to terms in a contracting relationship. Would it make a difference in such a classification if the government had taken over a formerly private category of services?

The Justices spent relatively little time on the looming presence of Employment Division v. Smith, which many religious liberty litigators seek to overturn. Justice Amy Coney Barrett got straight to the point, though, when she asked advocate Lori Windham, “What would you replace Smith with? Would you just want to return to Sherbert v. Verner?” In some ways Smith already seemed half‐​dead, however, as the Justices debated whether the city was acting on behalf of a compelling enough government interest and had exhausted possible accommodations.

To my mind, the best policy approach in cases like these is a pluralist one in which a variety of high‐​quality foster care agencies are made welcome, while the city makes sure all qualified families have agencies happy to serve them. Such a multi‐​door or choice‐​based system would be more easily advanced through concepts of voucherization. In particular, Prof. Robin Fretwell Wilson of Illinois has suggested voucherizing the home study phase of the process, which is the sticking point for CSS. And yet an affirmative obligation to voucherize a complicated service is probably beyond this (or any?) Court’s view of what the Constitution requires. Justice Brett Kavanaugh — who may be in a position to assemble a majority — seemed instead to have in mind a search for minimalist common ground, even if only enough of it to last one case. 

November 3, 2020 9:48AM

This Election Day, Lament That We Have So Little School Choice

This Election Day, there is much more at work in American politics than a poor grasp of civics. If the people are irreconcilably polarized, or heavily inclined to ignore things like constitutional prohibitions on government power, their knowing how government is supposed to work will have little salutary effect. But it surely has not helped our situation that many people are unfamiliar with such civic basics as the three branches of the federal government, or much worse, that many seem to have lost all tolerance for those with beliefs different from their own.

What is to blame for this sad state of civic affairs? At least one culprit, ironically, is public schooling.

Of course, numerous factors likely play into our education system’s troubling civics outcomes, and the greatest may well be that many people just do not care that much about things like how a bill becomes a law. But as University of Arkansas professor Patrick Wolf lays out in School Choice Myths: Setting the Record Straight on Education Freedom, public schooling itself is likely a big problem. Tallying the research comparing civic outcomes for private and public‐​school students, including knowledge of how government works and tolerance for opposing viewpoints, Wolf finds a clear private school advantage.

Looking at the 34 existing studies comparing public and private schools that try to control for student characteristics, encompassing 86 total findings, Wolf reports 50 findings of a private school advantage, 33 no difference, and just 3 showing a public‐​school advantage. When it comes to respecting political rights even of people with views one finds repugnant – perhaps the most important civic value in an extremely polarized country – the score is 13 private advantage, 10 no difference, 1 public.

All findngs private school choice and civic outcomes
Findings on private school choice and political tolerance

Why this huge differential, especially given that the primary argument for creating public schools was that only they could guarantee the virtuous citizens essential for a democracy?

The answer may be captured in a recent Washington Post article about the minefield public school civics teachers have faced this election season. Many teachers “worry about uttering the wrong word or being misinterpreted and facing backlash from administrators, parents or polarized community members. In a year already blasted by the coronavirus pandemic, job losses and widespread protests for racial justice, teaching about the bitter election battle can feel like a high‐​wire act over a sea of sharks.”

While the 2020 election has been more toxic than others in recent memory, it has only amplified what has long crippled civics ed. As Diane Ravitch tackled in the Language Police in 2004, Berkman and Plutzer captured in their survey work on teaching (or not) evolution in 2010, we chronicle on the Public Schooling Battle Map, and Charles Glenn illuminated about the Nineteenth Century founding of “common schools,” political and social topics have always been tinderboxes, and public school teachers have been heavily incentivized to avoid them. They don’t want to ignite political and social wars.

Why is that a particularly big danger for public schools? Because people with diverse political and social views are forced to pay for those schools, and de facto to use them. That renders areas of disagreement winner‐​take‐​all battlefields, and topics like those in civics, on which diverse people may strongly disagree, minefields to avoid, not bucolic gardens to explore hand‐​in‐​hand.

Private schooling is fundamentally different. No family is forced to use a particular private school, enabling such schools to teach more concrete things in civics, especially wholeheartedly embracing values such as freedom of speech for all. They do not risk nuclear warfare because families that do not agree, rather than having to fight to make their beliefs the ones that must be taught to everyone, can simply take their kids and money elsewhere.

As the painful 2020 election season draws to a close, the irony should not be lost: The education system intended to create knowledgeable and tolerant citizens may well be a major reason we have too little of the civic knowledge and values we need. For better government, we should end government schooling.