Unnatural Selection

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Eighty years ago Sunday the famous Scopes Monkey Trial began in Dayton, Tennessee. The lessons from that trial can help us understand the school choice debate today.

In 1925, the Tennessee legislature passed a law forbidding teaching in public school “any theory that denies the story of divine creation of man as taught in the Bible.” A young teacher, John T. Scopes, taught the theory of evolution in a high school biology class and was arrested for violating the new state law. Two famous lawyers, William Jennings Bryan and Clarence Darrow, came to the little town of Dayton to prosecute and defend Scopes. Their confrontation defined the clash between evolutionary theory and creationism, science and religion, for years to come.

How does this battle relate to school choice? It illustrates the problem with a one‐​size‐​fits‐​all monopoly school system. Lots of Tennesseans wanted their children taught the Biblical story of creation. But there were others, probably a minority, who wanted their children to learn the scientific consensus in biology class. Because the school system was a state monopoly, they couldn’t both get what they wanted.

A state monopoly on electricity generation may be economically inefficient, but it’s not likely to generate political conflict over moral values. But the state education monopoly is something else again. Education deals with topics that many people feel strongly about, and a monopoly requires them to fight over whose values will prevail in the single school system.

What sorts of conflicts can arise? Parents, taxpayers, and other voters can disagree over school prayer, ethnic history, the Pledge of Allegiance, school uniforms, gay teachers, teaching tolerance, drug testing — or evolution vs. creation.

In a market system, customers can choose from a wide variety of options. Don’t like steak? Eat at a vegetarian restaurant. Don’t like traffic? Live in a bucolic neighborhood.

In a political system, like the school system, however, one group “wins,” and the losers are stuck with products or services they don’t like. Different preferences become the subject of endless political, legislative, and judicial squabbles.

Several years ago, New York City saw a battle royal over the values to be taught to the city’s 1 million schoolchildren. The ruling establishment tried to impose the multicultural, pro‐​gay “Children of the Rainbow” curriculum on all schools. A backlash erupted, leading to the removal of the city’s school superintendent. Emboldened by popular opposition to the Rainbow Curriculum, the Catholic Church teamed up with Pat Robertson’s Christian Coalition to try to take over the city’s 32 community school boards.

The cultural elite fought back, pulling together a coalition including the United Federation of Teachers, key supporters of liberal Mayor David Dinkins, People for the American Way, and gay activists. The two groups fought bitterly for the right to impose their own moral and cultural values on New York’s million schoolchildren. In the end, it was a draw, and schoolchildren continued to be pawns in a political struggle.

Every fall, as a new school year opens, the newspapers are chock full of reports of conflicts between parents and school officials about how children should be educated.

  • In Takoma Park, Maryland, the parents of Eleanor Glewwe and Hana Maruyama wanted to enroll their daughters in the French‐​immersion program at Maryvale Elementary. But because the girls are both half Asian — and thus deemed officially “Asian” by the Montgomery County school system — they were not allowed to transfer from their assigned school, Takoma Park Elementary. The parents suggested that the school reclassify their daughters as white but a different policy prevents white students from leaving Takoma Park Elementary as well.
  • In Phoenix, Arizona, the parents of Analicia Ortiz and Dustin Green objected to their local school’s requirement that junior‐​high students wear uniforms. So the school district forcibly transferred the students to another school and got a court order banning both the students and their parents from the neighborhood school.
  • In Burtonsville, Maryland, Cindy Essick wanted her five‐​year‐​old quadruplets to enter the same kindergarten classroom, but school officials insisted the children be placed in separate classes. Essick kept Danielle, Timothy, Zachary, and Nicholas at home until the school relented.

In those cases and others across the country, school officials and parents disagree about what’s best. Who decides? Under our current system, the school board or the legislature makes a decision for the whole district or state. Under a system of school choice, parents could choose the school that best fit their child’s needs — with or without school uniforms, with or without school prayer, teaching evolution or creation, and so on. We’d have no more trials of teachers, and fewer dissatisfied parents.