Government Schools, Democracy, and Social Conflict

The prevailing narrative about government-run schools is that they are the linchpin of democracy. These “common schools,” the argument goes, harmoniously bring together people from various racial, ethnic, and religious backgrounds and instill in their children the civic values necessary for a pluralist democracy.

In reality, however, government schooling often forces citizens into political combat. Different families have different priorities on topics ranging from academics and the arts to questions of morality and religion. No single school can possibly reflect the wide range of mutually exclusive views on these fundamental subjects.

In a market-based education system, parents can select the school most closely aligned with their priorities. By contrast, when these questions are decided through a political system, such as elected school boards, parents with differing views must struggle against each other to have the school reflect their views. Inevitably, some parents will lose that struggle. To add insult to injury, all citizens are forced to pay for the government-run schools through their taxes, even when those schools are antagonistic toward their most deeply held values.

As cataloged in the Public Schooling Battle Map, government schools have forced parents into conflict over issues like freedom of expression, religion, morality, creationism, evolution, multiculturalism, sexuality, and numerous other issues in hundreds of reported cases in recent years. Because the map only lists conflicts reported in major media outlets, it likely covers only a fraction of the actual incidences of conflict.

Such conflicts are not merely a recent phenomenon. As Neal McCluskey explains in Why We Fight: How Public Schools Cause Social Conflict, such conflicts date back to the origins of government schooling.

Throughout American history, public schooling has produced political disputes, animosity, and sometimes even bloodshed between diverse people. Such clashes are inevitable in government-run schooling because all Americans are required to support the public schools, but only those with the most political power control them. Political — and sometimes even physical — conflict has thus been inescapable public schooling reality.

In the 1840s dozens of people were killed and hundreds were injured in a series of riots in Philadelphia over the proper way to teach the Bible in public schools. In 1925 a dispute over the teaching of evolution in Tennessee schools resulted in the famous Scopes “monkey trial.” Students and parents engaged in sometimes bloody brawls over court-ordered busing in Boston in the 1970s. These and countless other conflicts reveal deep cracks in the “unity and democracy” argument for government schooling.

A pluralistic society should make space for a plurality of views in education. Government schooling, by its very nature, privileges some views at the expense of others, forcing parents into conflict. More pluralistic education systems empower parents to choose schools that align with their values, and universal access to such systems can be achieved through scholarship tax credit laws.

A system of educational choice not only fosters the peaceful resolution of conflicts, it also does a better job instilling civic knowledge and values. The education system best suited to support a free society is one that is itself grounded in freedom.

Next up, read about Parental Choice and Responsibility.

 

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