Commentary

Battle Brews over Banned Books and Evolution — but the Solution Is Simple

There’s been a battle brewing in Arizona over what public schools will teach about the origins and development of all living things. Last week was also Banned Books Week, in Arizona and nationwide. And in the midst of all this, Arizonans have been debating Proposition 305, which with a “no” vote would kill expansion of the state’s Empowerment Scholarship Accounts program that gives parents unprecedented control over education funding.

These things are not disconnected, and what applies to Arizona applies to any state: Embracing school choice — in the case of Arizona, keeping the expansion — may well be the key to defusing destructive science and book battles, and providing equality for all.

The first battle revolves around proposals from a state department of education working group to alter how Arizona’s curriculum standards frame evolution, the theory that life has changed in incremental, natural steps over billions of years. The proposed changes would refer to evolution as “an” explanation for life on Earth, rather than the sole explanation. Why the introduction of doubt? Many Arizonans, like many Americans, believe that the Earth and the creatures on it were created by God, including human beings in their present form.

This fight is, of course, not new. Charles Darwin published On the Origin of Species, laying out basic evolutionary theory, in 1859, and schools across the country have been racked by conflict over it since at least the infamous Scopes Monkey Trial of 1925. What makes the subject so volatile is that there is no middle ground for those who believe that God created the Earth and everything on it and those who hold that God had no role and, for many, that there is no God.

The result for public schools has been many high-profile conflicts like the Scopes trial, but more often a quiet avoidance of the topic. As political scientists Michael Berkman and Eric Plutzer found surveying a national sample of high school biology teachers, most either skip or soft-pedal evolution, likely to avoid inflaming controversy. The upshot is that neither adherents of evolution nor creationism get what they truly want.

Public school book battles share the same root cause: People with diverse views and values must fund a single system of schools. Of course, schools cannot stock or assign every book; they have to pick some and reject others. But that means beliefs and opinions that some people dislike and even find intolerable will often be advanced, while books espousing others’ powerful convictions will never see the fluorescent light of a public school. Such inequality can lead to resentment and calls to remove books from reading lists and library shelves.

In the last few years, books such as The Kite Runner, Dreaming in Cuban, and Lovingly Alice have been challenged in Arizona public schools, and nationally, we’ve seen many more.

What does Arizona’s Proposition 305 have to do with any of this? Plenty: Educational choice is key to avoiding conflict, and more importantly, to equality under the law. As long as the people of Arizona hold diverse beliefs and values, government-run schools cannot serve all equally. Schools must choose some positions and beliefs to elevate and others to set aside.

School choice is fundamentally different, attaching money to students instead of schools, and enabling individual families to select among institutions that are free to determine for themselves what they will teach and how they will teach it. No more having to impose one view on all people. And education savings accounts — what the Empowerment program provides — are even more freeing than choice programs such as vouchers, enabling families to not just select among schools, but numerous options such as tutoring, online classes, and more.

Battles over evolution and books in public schools are symptoms of a basic reality: By requiring all people to fund a single system of government-run schools, diverse people are too often left with little choice but to fight to have their values be the ones taught. Educational freedom, in gleaming contrast, offers equality and relative peace.

Neal McCluskey is a contributor to the Washington Examiner’s Beltway Confidential blog. He is the director of the Cato Institute’s Center for Educational Freedom and maintains Cato’s Public Schooling Battle Map.