Val­ues fights in pub­lic schools are ‘in­evitable,’ scholar says

The Washington Times Weekly - - Front Page - By Amy Fa­gan

Pub­lic schools of­ten are cel­e­brated as a uni­fy­ing force in Amer­i­can so­ci­ety, but in fact the sys­tem causes deep and per­sis­tent con­flict among dif­fer­ent groups, be­cause all are forced to pay into a sys­tem con­trolled by just a few, ac­cord­ing to a Cato In­sti­tute study.

“Rather than bring­ing peo­ple to­gether, pub­lic school­ing of­ten forces peo­ple of dis­parate back­grounds and be­liefs into po­lit­i­cal com­bat,” writes Cato scholar Neal McCluskey, who tracked 150 so­cial bat­tles in pub­lic schools dur­ing the 2005-06 aca­demic year, in­clud­ing con­flicts over evo­lu­tion, re­li­gious ex­pres­sion and the con­tent of li­brary books. “Such clashes are in­evitable in gov­ern­ment-run school­ing be­cause all Amer­i­cans are re­quired to sup­port the pub­lic schools, but only those with the most po­lit­i­cal power con­trol them.”

Mr. McCluskey, an ad­vo­cate of school choice, said those who lose a val­ues fight in a pub­lic school are trapped pay­ing for a ser­vice with which they dis­agree. This bat­tle of

win­ners and losers is un­avoid­able un­der the cur­rent sys­tem be­cause, “you can’t run a sin­gle sys­tem of ed­u­ca­tion that up­holds the morals and val­ues of all.”

The an­swer, he said in his study — ti­tled “Why We Fight: How Pub­lic Schools Cause So­cial Con­flict” — is to al­low school choice, which would defuse many of th­ese val­ues fights by al­low­ing par­ents to spend their tax dol­lars on the school they think is best. At a Jan. 23 dis­cus­sion spon­sored by Cato, a free-mar­ket think tank, some ed­u­ca­tors strongly dis­agreed with Mr. McCluskey’s as­sess­ment.

Crit­ics ar­gued that vig­or­ous de­bate is a vi­tal part of a di­verse democ­racy and that pub­lic schools rightly re­flect this. Al­low­ing ev­ery­one to re­treat into their re­spec­tive cor­ners would lead to a frac­tured and in­tol­er­ant so­ci­ety, crit­ics said.

“I see this as an ex­am­ple of democ­racy in ac­tion,” Ger­ald Bracey, as­so­ci­ate at the High/Scope Ed­u­ca­tional Re­search Foun­da­tion, said of the school de­bates. “Iso­la­tion­ism, I think, guar­an­tees ex­clu­sion, hos­til­ity and re­jec­tion.”

Mr. Bracey also said the cur­rent ar­range­ment­might­bethebest­way to pro­tect private schools from heavy gov­ern­ment in­tru­sion. Euro­pean coun­tries that opted for school “choice” ended up twist­ing choice into a “farce,” he warned, be­cause the gov­ern­ment now de­cides who teaches, what is taught and howitis­taught—in­both­pub­li­cand private schools.

Charles C. Haynes, se­nior scholar and di­rec­tor of ed­u­ca­tional pro­grams at the Free­dom Fo­rum’s First Amend­ment Cen­ter, said it’s in­ac­cu­rate to paint pub­lic school bat­tles as hope­less, un­end­ing con­flicts be­cause there are clear ex­am­ples of suc­cess­ful com­pro­mise. Twenty years ago, he said, most pub­lic school teach­ers were scared by court de­ci­sions and sought to turn schools into re­li­gion-free zones, bu­tyear­sof­con­flic­tand­de­bate­have led most schools to an ef­fec­tive mid- dle ground, where stu­dents can ex­press their reli­gions dur­ing the school day, stu­dent re­li­gious groups meet on school grounds, and teach­ers in­struct about re­li­gion with­out ad­vo­cat­ing any par­tic­u­lar one.

“In my ex­pe­ri­ence, the good sto­ries far out­weigh the bad,” Mr. Haynes said. “Pub­lic ed­u­ca­tion has a cen­tral role to play in build­ing one na­tion” out of many di­verse back­grounds.

Mr. McCluskey, a pol­icy an­a­lyst at Cato’s Cen­ter for Ed­u­ca­tional Free­dom, said that stu­dents are the ones who suf­fer most dur­ing pub­lic school con­flicts, and that cur­ric­ula and text­books are of­ten “wa­tered down” to the “low­est com­mon de­nom­i­na­tor” so as to of­fend the least num­ber of peo­ple.

True unity can­not be “co­erced” from the top down, he said, but hap­pens when di­verse groups vol­un­tar­ily find ar­eas of com­mon agree­ment to ad­vance their in­ter­ests.

His study tracked pub­lic school bat­tles in the news dur­ing the 200506 school year and found that 20 states had fights over free­dom of ex­pres­sion is­sues, 11 states sparred over the in­clu­sion and treat­ment of dif­fer­ent racial and eth­nic groups in cur­ric­ula and text­books, eight states faced dis­putes over how pub­lic schools han­dled ho­mo­sex­u­al­ity, 13 states had sex-ed­u­ca­tion bat­tles, 17 states ex­pe­ri­enced a re­li­gious con­flict con­nected to pub­lic schools and at least 18 state school dis­tricts, school boards or leg­is­la­tures de­bated about how evo­lu­tion should be han­dled.

Mr. McCluskey said pub­lic schools in early Amer­ica were less di­vi­sive be­cause they typ­i­cally sprang up or­gan­i­cally when like­minded groups of peo­ple vol­un­tar­ily banded to­gether. Mr. Bracey coun­tered that tough is­sues and dif­fer­ing view­points were sim­ply ig­nored back then.

School choice won’t cure the cul­ture bat­tles — which will hap­pen in any school, in­clud­ing private schools — but it will lessen them, Mr. McCluskey said, be­cause par­entswhodis­agree­havethe­free­dom to take their money else­where.

“McCluskey is rais­ing an im­por­tant point,” said Dan Lips, an ed­u­ca­tion an­a­lyst at the con­serv- ative Her­itage Foun­da­tion. “If par­ents were able to choose their chil­dren’s schools, many of the cul­ture wars that ex­ist in pub­lic ed­u­ca­tion would be set­tled by fam­i­lies mak­ing the best de­ci­sion on be­half of their chil­dren.”

At least part of the dis­cus­sion hinged on whether the school or the par­ent holds pri­mary re­spon­si­bil­ity for de­cid­ing what chil­dren should learn.

“I think it’s the role of the school to make par­ents aware of the new,” said Mr. Bracey, adding that sim­ple read­ing, writ­ing and math aren’t ad­e­quate any­more in a so­ci­ety of com­put­ers and cut­ting-edge sci­en­tific break­throughs, and that schools must ad­just ac­cord­ingly.

By con­trast, Mr. McCluskey’s study states that “when par­ents can choose schools that share their moral, ped­a­gog­i­cal and other be­liefs, ed­u­ca­tion is more ef­fec­tive.”

Mr. McCluskey said he hopes to makethes­tudyanan­nu­al­bench­mark so peo­ple will be­gin to de­bate the tra­di­tion­ally held be­lief that pub­lic schools pro­duce a uni­fied so­ci­ety.

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