Public Schooling’s Divisive Effect

September 1, 2007 • Commentary
This article appeared in the September 2007 issue of USA Today Magazine.

Public schooling, we are told, is the linchpin of American unity and democracy. “If common schools go, then we are no longer America,” writes Paul D. Houston, executive director of the American Association of School Administrators. “The original critical mission of the common schools was … to be places where the ideals of civic virtue were passed down to the next generation. They were to prepare citizens for our democracy. They were to be places where the children of our democracy would learn to live together.”

In a similar vein, Benjamin R. Barber, author of the best‐​selling Jihad vs. McWorld, asserts that public schools are “the very foundation of our democratic civic culture … institutions where we learn what it means to be a public and start down the road toward common national and civic identity. They are the forges of our citizenship and the bedrock of our democracy.”

These are, without a doubt, very powerful images, and their widespread acceptance long has undergirded Americans’ assumption that government‐​run schools always have been, and always will be, essential to the nation’s unity, but “powerful” and “accurate” are far from synonymous. Consider: In the 1840s, disputes over the Bible’s place in Philadelphia’s public schools sparked rioting that inflicted millions of dollars in damage and killed or injured hundreds of people. In 1925, the Scopes “monkey trial” captured the nation’s attention as the legality of teaching evolution in public schools was fought first in a Tennessee courtroom and, then, to accommodate the thousands of people who showed up for the spectacle, on the lawn outside the courthouse. In the mid 1970s, court‐​ordered busing of children in Boston precipitated constant brawling in the schools and unrest in the streets. Finally, tensions were so high in Miami last year over the removal of books from school libraries that one school board member reported that his colleagues feared that they “might find a bomb under their automobiles.”

These and many, many incidents like them reveal deep cracks in the “unity and democracy” argument for public schooling. Moreover, history points to other American institutions as being much more important to the nation’s harmony, freedom, and prosperity than government‐ run schooling. Overall, it has been the nation’s commitment to limited government and individual liberty—not public schools’ ability to indoctrinate children into some civic religion, or to mold them into “proper” Americans— that has been the key to U.S. success.

Decisions debated literally every day in public schools thrust Americans into political conflict, whether over district budgets, dress codes, the amount of time children spend in art classes, or countless other matters. To see this, most people need do little more than read about school board meetings in their local newspapers. Although schools and districts may confront their own, specific issues, the conflicts those issues produce are driven by the same dynamic: All taxpayers must support the public schools, but only those able to summon sufficient political power can determine what the schools will teach and how they will be run. Because of that, political fighting is inherent to the system.

All public school conflicts have the potential to inflict social pain, but the most wrenching are those that pit people’s fundamental values— values that cannot be proven right or wrong, and that deserve equal respect by government— against each other. Whereas most conflicts have unique immediate causes, there are several common refrains that arise time and again.

Below are the general categories of these recent school battles. None, clearly, garnered more national attention than the wrestling matches over intelligent design, with 18 states reporting some debate over it and conflicts in Kansas and Pennsylvania grabbing headlines across the country. Other controversies were almost as widespread, including clashes over students’ right to protest government policies without facing punishment from governmental entities (i.e., public schools) and tussles over “abstinence only” sex education. Simply put, forcing diverse people to support monolithic government school systems inevitably causes political and social conflict. What follows are some of the major national flash points:

  • Conflicts over the inclusion of intelligent design theory in science classes actually were just the most recent skirmishes in the seemingly endless evolution‐​creationism struggle, a battle that pits people who want only evolution taught in biology classes against those who want children to learn about perceived flaws in Darwin’s Theory of Evolution or alternative explanations—often religious—for the origins of life.

    There were two major intelligent design battlegrounds: Dover, Pa., and the entire state of Kansas. In Dover, a school district policy requiring biology students to hear a disclaimer stating that Darwinian evolution is a theory, not a fact, and directing students to the intelligent design book, Of Pandas and People, eventually ended up in a Federal court. There, the policy was declared unconstitutional. The damage, however, already had been done. As ABC News reported a few months after the school board approved the disclaimer, the people of Dover were deeply torn over the school board’s actions, and it was not uncommon for townspeople to refuse even to speak to those in their community who came down on the opposite side of the issue.

    Kansas, for its part, continued a long‐​running roller coaster ride that has seen the state board of education change its stance on evolution several times in recent years. In August 2005, the board voted to include greater questioning of evolution in state science standards, returning to a policy akin to one it enacted in 1999, but reversed two years later. This appears to have been followed by yet another reversal: In August 2006, the evolution‐​skeptic majority on the board was eliminated in primary elections, likely switching the board back to a pro‐​evolution majority.

    Although the focus was on Dover and Kansas, intelligent design provoked conflict nationwide. Pres. George W. Bush even weighed in on the controversy, asserting that “both sides ought to be properly taught … so people can understand what the debate is about.” In all, at least 18 school districts, school boards, or state legislatures debated how evolution should be handled in public schools.

  • The fundamental conflict in freedom‐​of‐​expression battles is between students’ rights to say or wear what they want, and other students’ ability to obtain the education to which they are entitled (and for which taxpayers have paid) without disruption or feeling threatened. In these cases, the Federal constitutional prohibition against government choosing what expression is acceptable collides head‐​on with the schools’ obligation to provide children with the education that they are entitled to. Included under this heading are such common grounds for dispute as dress codes, administrator oversight of student journalism, and simple student speech.

    By far the biggest cause of free expression fights was the series of immigration protests that swept the nation. Numerous schools and districts struggled with how to discipline students who skipped school to attend rallies, and many others faced challenges maintaining peace on school grounds as students took sides in the highly flammable debate.

    A situation that illuminated the quandary school administrators found themselves in last year occurred at Fallbrook (Calif.) High School, where student Malia Fontana had an incident report placed in her file after a school security officer saw an American flag in her back pocket. The district had prohibited students from displaying flags on the heels of a violent student demonstration at the nearby Oceanside school district, in which pupils threw milk cartons and other objects at police, who then responded with pepper spray.

    School officials believed that various flags had become powerful—and dangerous—symbols in immigration‐​related tensions and banned their display to help maintain order. The ACLU, however, threatened to sue the Fallbrook district on grounds that it had violated Fontana’s civil rights.

    All told, a minimum of 20 states experienced freedom of expression controversies.

  • From the Adventures of Huckleberry Finn to The Catcher in the Rye, fights over what books should or should not be in school libraries or taught in classes have been a permanent feature of public schooling. The basic problem is this: Government neither has the right to censor speech nor to compel people to support the speech of others, yet public schooling does both. Whenever a school district buys a book with public funds, it forces every district taxpayer to support the speech contained in it, and whenever it removes a book from a library, it condemns that speech.

    Nowhere did book banning prove more divisive than in the Miami‐​Dade school district. There, the school board ordered the removal —from bookshelves district-wide—of Vamos a Cuba, a book charged with portraying Fidel Castro’s country in far too rosy a light, as well as all the other volumes in the 24‐​book collection to which it belonged. The removal did not occur, though, until tempers in Miami had reached feverish levels.

    Ethnically diverse Miami, however, was not the only site of book banning conflict. Relatively homogeneous Carroll County, Md., also was beset by a censorship controversy when, at the request of some district parents, Superintendent Charles I. Ecker pulled The Earth, My Butt, and Other Big Round Things from school shelves. The award‐​winning book depicted such things as self‐​mutilation and date rape that the aggrieved parents thought inappropriate for children. After a great outcry from members of the community who wanted the book restored, Ecker consented to returning the book to high school shelves while maintaining the ban in middle schools. Still, at least one student intends to fight on for a complete ban. “I’m not going to accept a [committee’s] decision that is stacked against the values of Carroll County,” said 17‐​year‐​old Joel Ready.

    Book‐​banning battles were not as prevalent as evolution or expression fights, but they still were common, occurring in at least eight states—and those were just the ones for which we found major media stories. According to the American Library Association, however, book fights probably were much more common than that. In 2004, for instance, ALA Executive Director Beverly Becker said her group received reports of 547 book challenges, and she estimated that to be only onequarter of the likely number.

  • Perhaps nothing—not even creationism— has produced as much anger as the portrayal of different races, ethnicities, and cultures in America’s schools. What groups should be included in history textbooks? What aspects of their histories? How does a school handle disputed “facts” about different groups? Questions such as these have produced a geyser of vitriol, as states and school districts try to decide what every student under their authority will learn—or not learn—about the myriad groups that make up our society.

California’s Hindu uprising

California was the site of perhaps the most fierce dispute, as Hindus expressed great discontent with history books currently approved by the state that they say egregiously misrepresent Hinduism—and, as a result, Indian history— by focusing on the caste system and oppression of women. Those are common smears, they claim, dating back to British rule over India. Many historians, though, have disagreed with their complaints, arguing that right‐​wing Hindus are trying to whitewash history. Hindu reaction to the dispute has been intense. According to Glee Johnson, president of the state school board, the board received over 1,500 letters and e‐​mails from the Hindu community in a single week. “To many people, it gets very emotional,” Johnson explains. “This is not just about academics, but is tied in to people’s view of themselves and their history.”

For the year, fires over the inclusion and treatment of different cultures, races, and ethnic groups in school curricula and textbooks burned in at least 11 states.

  • Forced segregation by race has been a blot on American society since the nation’s earliest days. However, government‐​mandated integration also has been problematic, often robbing people of control over their own lives in order to atone for past discrimination. At issue in disputes between segregation and freedom often is whether different racial groups, genders, or ethnicities should be allowed to go to schools and classes intended to serve them specifically or whether integration is of overriding importance.

    Integration versus self‐​determination became a very high‐​profile issue in Nebraska when the state’s only black state senator amended education legislation so that it split Omaha’s school district along racial lines. “Several years ago, I began discussing in my community the possibility of carving our area out of Omaha Public Schools and establishing a district over which we would have control,” Sen. Ernie Chambers said during the debate on the floor of the legislature. “My intent is not to have an exclusionary system, but [one] we, meaning black people, whose children make up the vast majority of the student population, would control.” Despite Chambers’ intent to give Omaha’s African‐​Americans control over their own schools, many black leaders in Nebraska disagreed with his efforts. “This is a disaster,” declared Ben Gray, cochairman of the African‐​American Achievement Council.

    Struggles between integration and self‐​determination were limited to only about five states but, where they occurred, passions ran high.

  • Parents who wanted their children to receive no sex education in schools or just abstinence education were in regular fights with parents who wanted their offspring to be provided more comprehensive sex education. From upper‐ middle class Montgomery County, Md., to the Kyrene Elementary School District in Tempe, Ariz., the determination of what children should be taught about sex created significant political tension. At a minimum, 13 states saw controversies over this issue.
  • The treatment of homosexuals personally, and homosexuality in principle, repeatedly led to clashes between parents and students who opposed homosexuality on moral grounds and those who wanted all students to learn about— and to tolerate—it. Public schooling’s mission to unite diverse people came into direct conflict with varying moral and ethical values. In Lexington, Mass., conflict broke out when a teacher read the book King & King to secondgrade students. The book is about a prince who falls in love with another prince, marries him, and at the end it shows the two kissing.

    “My son is only seven years old,” Robin Wirthlin told the Boston Globe. “By presenting this kind of issue at such a young age, they’re trying to indoctrinate our children. They’re intentionally presenting this as a norm, and it’s not a value that our family supports.” Lexington Superintendent Paul Ash countered that the schools’ obligation is to be inclusive and expose students to all types of lifestyles. “Lexington is committed to teaching children about the world they live in and, in Massachusetts, samesex marriage is legal.” Moreover, Ash laid bare the heart of the public schooling problem: “We couldn’t run a public school system if every parent who feels some topic is objectionable to them for moral or religious reasons decides their child should be removed.”

    In Utah, the homosexuality debate was a little different from Lexington’s, but had the same roots. There, a state legislator tried to ban Gay‐​Straight Alliance clubs, while club defenders argued that they are entitled to equal protection and, hence, to have their organizations in schools just like any other group. Conservatives like Utah Eagle Forum Pres. Gayle Ruzicka argued, however, that “most of the districts don’t want the clubs.”

    At least eight states suffered disputes over homosexuality’s treatment in the public schools.

  • Though overlapping several of the other categories, the treatment of religion itself in public education brought Americans into regular conflict. Whether it was dealing with prayer in public school districts, accommodating the holidays of all faiths, giving equal access to religious student groups, or teaching about the Bible, the friction between religious freedom and compelled support of religion in public schools was constant.

    By our count, 17 states experienced some sort of religious conflict instigated by public schooling.

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