An Education Policy Reading List

Prepared by Neal McCluskey

By requiring diverse people to pay for a single system of government schools, public schooling inevitably sparks conflict, some of it of a very personal nature. People are forced to fight to make their values, or views of history, what are taught, and not someone else’s that they might find objectionable, even abhorrent. This is fundamentally at odds with social cohesion and equality under the law. The solution is school choice: let educators freely choose what and how they’ll teach, and let funding freely follow children. Let all choose what they will learn and from whom rather than forcing everyone into a zero-sum game. 

Given some thought, this is a pretty logical proposition. But it goes against the dominant, immediately intuitive belief that undergirds public schooling: that all children must get the same basic education—be taught the same basic versions of history, the same civic and cultural values—so that they will get along when they are older. Of course, for this to happen peacefully, agreement on what is to be taught must already exist among the diverse American people who are supposed to control public schooling. Very often, it does not.

What follows are several books illustrating the conflict inherent to public schooling in a diverse society, and some prescribing school choice as the answer. It is not an exhaustive list, and we welcome additions. Please send recommendations to nmccluskey@cato.org:

  • Religious Education and the Public School: An American Problem, by George U. Wenner (New York: Bonnell, Silver and Co., 1907)
    Many public schools were de facto religious for a long time, but that was untenable given religious diversity. This book argues that removing religion from the schools was necessary, but ended up handicapping religion. It calls for school “released time” for students to attend religious instruction.
  • The Great School Wars: New York City, 1805-1973, by Diane Ravitch (New York: Basic Books, 1974)
    Chronicles major values and identity-based conflicts in the New York City public schools, including drives to get accommodations for Roman Catholics, and racial and ethnic battles for control of the Ocean Hill-Brownsville schools.
  • Compelling Belief: The Culture of American Schooling, by Stephen Arons (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1986)
    A survey of how compulsory, monopoly schools necessarily stifle dissent and cause conflict as they force plural communities into a one-size-fits-all system.
  • The Myth of the Common School, by Charles L. Glenn (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1987)
    Examines how the idea of state schooling to instill unity evolved, and discusses conflicts created by such systems in places such as France, the Netherlands, and Massachusetts.
  • The State and the Non-Public School: 1825-1925, by Lloyd P. Jorgenson (Columbia, MO: University of Missouri Press, 1987)
    Discusses a century of struggles to keep common schools Protestant, and the eventual ejection of religion from public schooling that wrought.
  • Short Route to Chaos: Conscience, Community, and the Re-Constitution of American Schooling, by Stephen Arons (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1997)
    In some ways an update to Compelling Belief and the clearest expression in print of how public schooling creates conflict and inequality, it includes in-depth discussion of several battles during the time of the 103rd Congress, examines the threat of nationalized curricula, and proposes a constitutional amendment protecting “freedom of education.”
  • Market Education: The Unknown History, by Andrew J. Coulson (New Brunswick, N.J.: Transaction Books, 1999)
    An historical review of school systems from classical Athens to modern America, revealing how free markets have consistently done a better job of meeting the public’s needs than have state monopolies, including promoting social harmony.
  • Making Good Citizens: Education and Civil Society, edited by Diane Ravitch and Joseph P. Viteritti (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2001)
    Numerous authors examine the nexus of education and social structure, including chapters exploring pluralism and school choice.
  • Whose America? Culture Wars in the Public Schools, by Jonathan Zimmerman (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2002)
    Examines historical values and identity-based battles in public schools including over multiculturalism, school prayer, and the depiction of different ethnic groups in textbooks.
  • Evolution, Creationism, and the Battle to Control America’s Schools, by Michael Berkman and Eric Plutzer (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2010)
    Since at least the Scopes “Monkey Trial” in 1925, Americans have often fought bitterly over the teaching of the origins of life. We still do, and the research in this book shows that the way peace is often kept is by teachers avoiding the topic entirely or soft-pedaling evolution.
  • Too Hot To Handle: The Global History of Sex Education, by Jonathan Zimmerman (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2015)
    Sex education has long been one of the most contentious issues in American public schooling, but this book shows it is not just an American problem.
  • No One Way to School: Pluralism and American Education, by Ashley Rogers Berner (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2016)
    Tackles the inability of American public schooling to leave educational space for plural communities, in contrast to many countries where the idea of choosing schools consistent with one’s faith or other values is the norm.