Why We Fight: How Public Schools Cause Social Conflict

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It is all too often assumed that public educationas we typically think of it today—schoolingprovided and controlled by government—constitutesthe "foundation of American democracy."Such schooling, it is argued, has taken people ofimmensely varied ethnic, religious, and racialbackgrounds and molded them into Americanswho are both unified and free. Public schooling,it is assumed, has been the gentle flame beneaththe great American melting pot.

Unfortunately, the reality is very different fromthose idealized assumptions. Indeed, rather thanbringing people together, public schooling oftenforces people of disparate backgrounds and beliefsinto political combat. This paper tracks almost150 such incidents in the 2005–06 school yearalone. Whether over the teaching of evolution, thecontent of library books, religious expression inthe schools, or several other common points ofcontention, conflict was constant in Americanpublic education last year.

Such conflict, however, is not peculiar to thelast school year, nor is it a recent phenomenon.Throughout American history, public schoolinghas produced political disputes, animosity, andsometimes even bloodshed between diverse people.Such clashes are inevitable in government-runschooling because all Americans are required tosupport the public schools, but only those withthe most political power control them. Political—and sometimes even physical—conflict has thusbeen an inescapable public schooling reality.

To end the fighting caused by state-run schooling,we should transform our system from one inwhich government establishes and controlsschools, to one in which individual parents areempowered to select schools that share their moralvalues and educational goals for their children.

Neal McCluskey

Neal McCluskey is a policy analyst at the Center for Educational Freedom and author of the forthcoming book Feds in the Classroom: How Big Government Corrupts, Cripples, and Compromises American Education (Rowman and Littlefield).