There is a widespread belief that public schools are the glue that holds diverse America together. As political theorist Benjamin Barber has described them, "They are the forges of our citizenship and the bedrock of our democracy." Of course "democracy," at its most basic level, means majority rule. But what happens when the majority does things the minority doesn't like, even despises? We learn the sad answer constantly: conflict, repression or mush.
Two ongoing battles — one in New York, the other in Louisiana — drive this reality home.
In New York's East Ramapo Central School District, racial, ethnic and religious fevers have run hot for years as the district's Orthodox Jewish majority has battled over resources with its largely African-American and Hispanic minority. In Louisiana, creationism continues to be taught in many public schools, to the dismay of those who believe that only science belongs in science classes.
A New York Times op-ed last week typified the vitriol that has beset East Ramapo. Running under the headline "A School Board that Victimizes Kids," New York Board of Regents Chancellor Merryl Tisch and Education Law Center executive director David Sciarra asserted that the district's Jewish majority is bleeding dry the public schools, primarily attended by non-Jewish students, by diverting funds to private Jewish institutions.
Mirroring religiously and ethnically-charged debate in the district, Tisch and Sciarra rejected fears that attacks on the district might be fueled by anti-Semitism. They wrote that efforts to assert state control are "not about punishing one group because of its religious beliefs; it is about acting to make sure that the civil rights of a community of overwhelmingly low-income minority children are not denied."
On the other side, school board members have said yes, a lot of Jewish children attend private schools, but state law — not district policy — requires that districts provide transportation funding. There are also significant costs for students with disabilities, and the state encourages districts to provide the options parents prefer. Those options, including alternative public schools, are often expensive.
And Jewish residents, as expressed by a Hasidic interviewee on the Jewish website "Tablet," also have grievances: "We pay taxes like everyone else, but they keep cutting our busing. We're funding the public schools, and our kids don't benefit at all."
Such wars are not new to New York. As historian Diane Ravitch chronicled in The Great School Wars, in the 1840s New York City was rocked by battles between Roman Catholics and Protestants over the common schools' overt Protestant bent, and in the 1960s black and Hispanic populations fought with the city's school board to control their own schools.
In Louisiana, religion is again the flashpoint, but the inherent inability of public schooling to treat diverse people equally, as in New York, is the root problem.
Since 2008, the Louisiana Science Education Act has permitted teachers to critique the theory of evolution. It has drawn the ire of many, but perhaps no one has been more dogged than college student Zack Kopplin. Recently Kopplin reported that he has investigated what is being taught in some Louisiana public schools and found, in some cases, overt Biblical creationism. Of course, a lot of Louisianans believe in creationism and don't want it pushed out of the schools for which they are forced to pay. A 2009 survey found that 58 percent of Louisianans would "generally favor ... teaching creationism along with evolution in public schools," versus only 31 percent who would generally oppose it. The majority, it seems, is just getting what it wants.
Teaching outright creationism is not the norm in American public schools. What is taught, though, should be cold comfort to evolutionists and creationists alike: According to survey work by political scientists Michael Berkman and Eric Plutzer, biology teachers mainly downplay evolution to avoid spurring conflict. Neither evolution nor creationism gets solid treatment.
How do we get the peace necessary for social cohesion without eliminating every potentially controversial thing from every school? Let all people freely choose educational options by funding students, not schools, through scholarship tax credits that let people choose whether to donate and to whom. In other words, stop basing education in winner-take-all "democracy" and start basing it on the true foundations of American life: liberty and equality for all.