The Different Responses in Parkland and Santa Fe Show We Need School Choice

This article appeared on Washington Examiner on June 4, 2018.
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Intellectually, I have many objections to gun control — but even my instinctive reaction whenever there is a school shooting, or any mass shooting, is that the big problem is the guns, and something needs to be done about them. And if I, a libertarian strongly predisposed against gun control, have that as my first reaction, surely all people must feel the same way. Right?

Apparently not. And that illustrates something important about how we organize education, and a whole lot else.

I have been surprised by how different the reactions to the horrific school shootings in Parkland, Fla., and Santa Fe, Texas, have been. The response from the Parkland community was one powerfully focused on gun control. The response from Santa Fe, where gun rights appear to be much more cherished, has been very different.

The Associated Press recently ran an article about the near silence on gun control in Santa Fe, in stark contrast to Parkland. The Texas Tribune covered a roundtable discussion in the Texas Capitol attended by people from Santa Fe and other Lone Star communities affected by mass shootings. Reported the Tribune:

“This is not a gun thing,” said Jay Horn, the parent of a student who is in the hospital after injuries from the shooting. “Evil’s going to happen with anything.” He got a loud round of applause.

The contrast in the responses is striking because I assume if my gut reaction is for gun control, then surely almost everyone, especially shooting survivors, would want it.

I suspect I’m not that different from most people in feeling—though on a rational level I know it not to be the case—that everyone must pretty much thinks the way I do. But it turns out there really is great diversity in the values and beliefs of communities and people. Of course, this is not just evident by comparing Santa Fe and Parkland.

The Cato Institute’s Public Schooling Battle Map, which I run, demonstrates this far more comprehensively. It includes nearly 2,000 conflicts in public schools, many over what values schools will teach or reinforce, such as comprehensive sex education or abstinence‐​only; modest dress or student freedom; bathroom choice or bodily privacy. These conflicts attest to the diversity of values strongly held by Americans, though of course we also know this from our increasingly visible and deep polarization well beyond education.

Given this diversity, we should be very hesitant to impose uniform solutions to social problems (including education), even if we feel like most people would or should agree with us. On a practical level, such remedies may not be sustainable in many places because the people would ignore or work their way around them. More importantly, imposing morally controversial rules and policies curbs people’s basic rights to act according to their consciences. Seeking centralized remedies also raises the political stakes of all social disagreements, forcing more, diverse people into divisive political combat to have their values upheld.

The first protection against this in American education is local control of public schooling; letting individual communities make decisions for themselves about what is taught and what rules schools will have. Unfortunately, we have been eroding this bulwark for decades, both with consolidation of districts and moving decisions up to state and federal levels.

That said, if there is diversity within a district, freedom of conscience will still be threatened. That is why we ultimately need universal school choice—essentially, the most local control—freeing all educators and families to choose education that shares their values.

We can all agree that the school shootings in Parkland, Santa Fe, and many other places were evil, atrocious acts. But that does not mean that even communities affected by the shootings share the same beliefs about what can and should be done. It’s a powerful reminder of the diversity in America that we need to protect when we seek to deal with social problems.

Neal McCluskey

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.