Public Schooling’s Divisive Effect

This article appeared in the September 2007 issue of USA Today Magazine.

Public schooling, we are told,is the linchpin of American unity anddemocracy. "If common schools go,then we are no longer America,"writes Paul D. Houston, executive director ofthe American Association of School Administrators."The original critical mission of thecommon schools was . . . to be places wherethe ideals of civic virtue were passed down tothe next generation. They were to prepare citizensfor our democracy. They were to beplaces where the children of our democracywould learn to live together."

In a similar vein, Benjamin R. Barber, authorof the best-selling Jihad vs. McWorld, assertsthat public schools are "the very foundationof our democratic civic culture . . . institutionswhere we learn what it means to be apublic and start down the road toward commonnational and civic identity. They are theforges of our citizenship and the bedrock ofour democracy."

These are, without a doubt, very powerfulimages, and their widespread acceptance longhas undergirded Americans' assumption thatgovernment-run schools always have been,and always will be, essential to the nation'sunity, but "powerful" and "accurate" are farfrom synonymous. Consider: In the 1840s,disputes over the Bible's place in Philadelphia'spublic schools sparked rioting that inflictedmillions of dollars in damage and killedor injured hundreds of people. In 1925, theScopes "monkey trial" captured the nation'sattention as the legality of teaching evolutionin public schools was fought first in a Tennesseecourtroom and, then, to accommodatethe thousands of people who showed up forthe spectacle, on the lawn outside the courthouse.In the mid 1970s, court-ordered busingof children in Boston precipitated constantbrawling in the schools and unrest in thestreets. Finally, tensions were so high in Miamilast year over the removal of books fromschool libraries that one school board memberreported that his colleagues feared that they"might find a bomb under their automobiles."

These and many, many incidents like themreveal deep cracks in the "unity and democracy"argument for public schooling. Moreover,history points to other American institutions asbeing much more important to the nation's harmony,freedom, and prosperity than government-run schooling. Overall, it has been thenation's commitment to limited governmentand individual liberty—not public schools'ability to indoctrinate children into some civicreligion, or to mold them into "proper" Americans—that has been the key to U.S. success.

Decisions debated literally every day inpublic schools thrust Americans into politicalconflict, whether over district budgets, dresscodes, the amount of time children spend in artclasses, or countless other matters. To see this,most people need do little more than readabout school board meetings in their localnewspapers. Although schools and districtsmay confront their own, specific issues, theconflicts those issues produce are driven bythe same dynamic: All taxpayers must supportthe public schools, but only those able to summonsufficient political power can determinewhat the schools will teach and how they willbe run. Because of that, political fighting is inherentto the system.

All public school conflicts have the potentialto inflict social pain, but the most wrenchingare those that pit people's fundamental values—values that cannot be proven right orwrong, and that deserve equal respect by government—against each other. Whereas mostconflicts have unique immediate causes, thereare several common refrains that arise timeand again.

Below are the general categories of theserecent school battles. None, clearly, garneredmore national attention than the wrestlingmatches over intelligent design, with 18 statesreporting some debate over it and conflicts inKansas and Pennsylvania grabbing headlinesacross the country. Other controversies werealmost as widespread, including clashes overstudents' right to protest government policieswithout facing punishment from governmentalentities (i.e., public schools) and tussles over"abstinence only" sex education. Simply put,forcing diverse people to support monolithicgovernment school systems inevitably causespolitical and social conflict. What follows aresome of the major national flash points:

  • Conflicts over the inclusion of intelligentdesign theory in science classes actually werejust the most recent skirmishes in the seeminglyendless evolution-creationism struggle, abattle that pits people who want only evolutiontaught in biology classes against thosewho want children to learn about perceivedflaws in Darwin's Theory of Evolution or alternativeexplanations—often religious—forthe origins of life.

    There were two major intelligent designbattlegrounds: Dover, Pa., and the entire stateof Kansas. In Dover, a school district policyrequiring biology students to hear a disclaimerstating that Darwinian evolution is a theory,not a fact, and directing students to the intelligentdesign book, Of Pandas and People,eventually ended up in a Federal court. There,the policy was declared unconstitutional. Thedamage, however, already had been done. AsABC News reported a few months after theschool board approved the disclaimer, the peopleof Dover were deeply torn over the schoolboard's actions, and it was not uncommon fortownspeople to refuse even to speak to thosein their community who came down on theopposite side of the issue.

    Kansas, for its part, continued a long-runningroller coaster ride that has seen the stateboard of education change its stance on evolutionseveral times in recent years. In August2005, the board voted to include greater questioningof evolution in state science standards,returning to a policy akin to one it enacted in1999, but reversed two years later. This appearsto have been followed by yet another reversal:In August 2006, the evolution-skepticmajority on the board was eliminated in primaryelections, likely switching the boardback to a pro-evolution majority.

    Although the focus was on Dover and Kansas,intelligent design provoked conflict nationwide.Pres. George W. Bush even weighed inon the controversy, asserting that "both sidesought to be properly taught . . . so people canunderstand what the debate is about." In all, atleast 18 school districts, school boards, or statelegislatures debated how evolution should behandled in public schools.

  • The fundamental conflict in freedom-of-expressionbattles is between students' rights tosay or wear what they want, and other students'ability to obtain the education to whichthey are entitled (and for which taxpayers havepaid) without disruption or feeling threatened.In these cases, the Federal constitutional prohibitionagainst government choosing what expressionis acceptable collides head-on withthe schools' obligation to provide childrenwith the education that they are entitled to. Includedunder this heading are such commongrounds for dispute as dress codes, administratoroversight of student journalism, and simplestudent speech.

    By far the biggest cause of free expressionfights was the series of immigration proteststhat swept the nation. Numerous schools anddistricts struggled with how to discipline studentswho skipped school to attend rallies, andmany others faced challenges maintainingpeace on school grounds as students took sidesin the highly flammable debate.

    A situation that illuminated the quandaryschool administrators found themselves in lastyear occurred at Fallbrook (Calif.) High School,where student Malia Fontana had an incidentreport placed in her file after a school securityofficer saw an American flag in her backpocket. The district had prohibited studentsfrom displaying flags on the heels of a violentstudent demonstration at the nearby Oceansideschool district, in which pupils threw milk cartonsand other objects at police, who then respondedwith pepper spray.

    School officials believed that various flagshad become powerful—and dangerous—symbolsin immigration-related tensions and bannedtheir display to help maintain order. TheACLU, however, threatened to sue the Fallbrookdistrict on grounds that it had violatedFontana's civil rights.

    All told, a minimum of 20 states experiencedfreedom of expression controversies.

  • From the Adventures of Huckleberry Finn toThe Catcher in the Rye, fights over what booksshould or should not be in school libraries ortaught in classes have been a permanent featureof public schooling. The basic problem is this:Government neither has the right to censorspeech nor to compel people to support thespeech of others, yet public schooling doesboth. Whenever a school district buys a bookwith public funds, it forces every district taxpayerto support the speech contained in it, andwhenever it removes a book from a library, itcondemns that speech.

    Nowhere did book banning prove more divisivethan in the Miami-Dade school district.There, the school board ordered the removal—from bookshelves district-wide—of Vamosa Cuba, a book charged with portraying FidelCastro's country in far too rosy a light, as wellas all the other volumes in the 24-book collectionto which it belonged. The removal did notoccur, though, until tempers in Miami hadreached feverish levels.

    Ethnically diverse Miami, however, wasnot the only site of book banning conflict. Relativelyhomogeneous Carroll County, Md., alsowas beset by a censorship controversywhen, at the request of some district parents,Superintendent Charles I. Ecker pulled TheEarth, My Butt, and Other Big Round Thingsfrom school shelves. The award-winning bookdepicted such things as self-mutilation anddate rape that the aggrieved parents thoughtinappropriate for children. After a great outcryfrom members of the community who wantedthe book restored, Ecker consented to returningthe book to high school shelves whilemaintaining the ban in middle schools. Still, atleast one student intends to fight on for a completeban. "I'm not going to accept a [committee's]decision that is stacked against the valuesof Carroll County," said 17-year-old JoelReady.

    Book-banning battles were not as prevalentas evolution or expression fights, but they stillwere common, occurring in at least eightstates—and those were just the ones for whichwe found major media stories. According tothe American Library Association, however,book fights probably were much more commonthan that. In 2004, for instance, ALA ExecutiveDirector Beverly Becker said hergroup received reports of 547 book challenges,and she estimated that to be only onequarterof the likely number.

  • Perhaps nothing—not even creationism—has produced as much anger as the portrayalof different races, ethnicities, and cultures inAmerica's schools. What groups should be includedin history textbooks? What aspects oftheir histories? How does a school handle disputed"facts" about different groups? Questionssuch as these have produced a geyser ofvitriol, as states and school districts try to decidewhat every student under their authoritywill learn—or not learn—about the myriadgroups that make up our society.

California's Hindu uprising

California was the site of perhaps the mostfierce dispute, as Hindus expressed great discontentwith history books currently approvedby the state that they say egregiously misrepresentHinduism—and, as a result, Indian history—by focusing on the caste system and oppressionof women. Those are common smears,they claim, dating back to British rule over India.Many historians, though, have disagreedwith their complaints, arguing that right-wingHindus are trying to whitewash history. Hindureaction to the dispute has been intense. Accordingto Glee Johnson, president of the stateschool board, the board received over 1,500letters and e-mails from the Hindu communityin a single week. "To many people, it gets veryemotional," Johnson explains. "This is not justabout academics, but is tied in to people's viewof themselves and their history."

For the year, fires over the inclusion andtreatment of different cultures, races, and ethnicgroups in school curricula and textbooksburned in at least 11 states.

  • Forced segregation by race has been a bloton American society since the nation's earliestdays. However, government-mandated integrationalso has been problematic, often robbingpeople of control over their own lives inorder to atone for past discrimination. At issuein disputes between segregation and freedomoften is whether different racial groups, genders,or ethnicities should be allowed to go toschools and classes intended to serve themspecifically or whether integration is of overridingimportance.

    Integration versus self-determination becamea very high-profile issue in Nebraskawhen the state's only black state senatoramended education legislation so that it splitOmaha's school district along racial lines."Several years ago, I began discussing in mycommunity the possibility of carving our areaout of Omaha Public Schools and establishinga district over which we would have control,"Sen. Ernie Chambers said during the debateon the floor of the legislature. "My intent isnot to have an exclusionary system, but [one]we, meaning black people, whose childrenmake up the vast majority of the student population,would control." Despite Chambers' intentto give Omaha's African-Americans controlover their own schools, many black leadersin Nebraska disagreed with his efforts."This is a disaster," declared Ben Gray, cochairmanof the African-American AchievementCouncil.

    Struggles between integration and self-determinationwere limited to only about fivestates but, where they occurred, passions ranhigh.

  • Parents who wanted their children to receiveno sex education in schools or just abstinenceeducation were in regular fights with parentswho wanted their offspring to be providedmore comprehensive sex education. From upper-middle class Montgomery County, Md., tothe Kyrene Elementary School District inTempe, Ariz., the determination of what childrenshould be taught about sex created significantpolitical tension. At a minimum, 13states saw controversies over this issue.
  • The treatment of homosexuals personally,and homosexuality in principle, repeatedly ledto clashes between parents and students whoopposed homosexuality on moral grounds andthose who wanted all students to learn about—and to tolerate—it. Public schooling's missionto unite diverse people came into direct conflictwith varying moral and ethical values. In Lexington,Mass., conflict broke out when ateacher read the book King & King to secondgradestudents. The book is about a prince whofalls in love with another prince, marries him,and at the end it shows the two kissing.

    "My son is only seven years old," RobinWirthlin told the Boston Globe. "By presentingthis kind of issue at such a young age, they'retrying to indoctrinate our children. They're intentionallypresenting this as a norm, and it'snot a value that our family supports." LexingtonSuperintendent Paul Ash countered that theschools' obligation is to be inclusive and exposestudents to all types of lifestyles. "Lexingtonis committed to teaching children about theworld they live in and, in Massachusetts, samesexmarriage is legal." Moreover, Ash laid barethe heart of the public schooling problem: "Wecouldn't run a public school system if everyparent who feels some topic is objectionable tothem for moral or religious reasons decidestheir child should be removed."

    In Utah, the homosexuality debate was alittle different from Lexington's, but had thesame roots. There, a state legislator tried toban Gay-Straight Alliance clubs, while clubdefenders argued that they are entitled to equalprotection and, hence, to have their organizationsin schools just like any other group. Conservativeslike Utah Eagle Forum Pres. GayleRuzicka argued, however, that "most of thedistricts don't want the clubs."

    At least eight states suffered disputes overhomosexuality's treatment in the publicschools.

  • Though overlapping several of the other categories,the treatment of religion itself in publiceducation brought Americans into regularconflict. Whether it was dealing with prayer inpublic school districts, accommodating theholidays of all faiths, giving equal access to religiousstudent groups, or teaching about theBible, the friction between religious freedomand compelled support of religion in publicschools was constant.

    By our count, 17 states experienced somesort of religious conflict instigated by publicschooling.