We fight about many things in public schools, from what time the day starts to the saltiness of lunches. But few battles are more painful than ones involving closely-held values, or intensely personal attributes such as race or culture. And among such searing conflicts, none are further beyond resolution within public schooling than religious battles, because the only thing public schools are outright legally prohibited from advancing is religious belief.
This prohibition hasn’t always existed. For much of American history many public schools were de facto Protestant, but since the 1960s public schools advancing religious beliefs has been barred. With good reason: If you weren’t religious, or of the “right” religious persuasion, you had to pay taxes for public schools that treated you unequally. But ending public schooling’s Protestant tenor just changed who was unequal under the law, moving from some religious people and all atheists and agnostics, to all who believe religion is integral to education.
That private schooling is dominated by religious institutions is powerful evidence of religion being sharply and uniquely cut off from public schooling. According to the most recent federal statistics, almost 76% of all private elementary and secondary students, or about 4.4 million children, are in religious institutions. In addition, roughly 3.4% of students—about 1.8 million kids—are homeschooled, often for religious reasons. Of course, all still pay for secular public schools.
These numbers are almost certainly just a fraction of the religiously marginalized. Having to pay twice likely keeps many families in public schools who would otherwise choose religious schooling. This is hinted at by the share of values- and identity-based public school conflicts that either expressly or likely involve religious convictions.
Of the 1,980 battles on the Cato Institute’s Public Schooling Battle Map, 313, or about 16%, are first-and-foremost about religion, such as conflicts over posting “In God We Trust” on school walls, or singing religious carols at holiday concerts. 62 are over “human origins”—basically, evolution versus creationism—and even ones about “intelligent design” instead of explicitly God creating all things have powerful religious connections. Many of the 256 “reading material” battles are over books that contain passages or themes some parents find inappropriate, sometimes for religious reasons, and oft-challenged novels such as Bless Me, Ultima and The Golden Compass have explicit religious connections. Throw in sex education and religious objections to such policies as transgender students choosing restrooms, and religion is suffused in a large share of values and identity-based conflicts.
How do we end the relegation of religious Americans to legally-mandated second-class citizenship, and defuse many of the most personal conflicts in public schools? School choice: public education, not just public schooling. Let people choose schools without sacrificing their tax dollars to institutions that teach things they deem unacceptable. Indeed, there is a powerfulconstitutional argument that if government is going to supply secular public schools, it must also supply school choice programs. It is the only way to neither favor nor discriminate against religious Americans.
Ironically, one of the major objections to private school choice programs has been that most private schools are religious. But that is not the problem, either constitutionally or practically. It is a glaring symptom of the problem: We force all people to pay for public schools, but the schools cannot treat all, diverse people equally.