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.
Read the rest of this post »