The school wars are America’s newest political battleground—a battle over what is taught in schools and how much control parents have over their children’s education. This issue has always simmered in the background, but its arrival at the center of national politics was heralded by the governor’s election a few months ago in Virginia, which hinged on a debate over public school curriculum influenced by Critical Race Theory—and the losing candidate’s gaffe in publicly stating, “I don’t think parents should be telling schools what they should teach.”
A successful political issue inspires imitators. Virginia has been followed by a series of state-level initiatives attempting to expose, limit or forbid teaching that is connected in any way to Critical Race Theory and the “woke” left. Ironically, this threatens to lead to intrusive book bans and other attempts to impose a kind of conservative political correctness in public schools.
Yet there is a widely available model for ending this war, one long implemented in some European countries as an answer to their own school wars. School choice is viewed as a radical libertarian experiment here, but in some European countries it has long been a normal way of doing things. The example that is probably most interesting in our current context is Belgium, which adopted a form of school choice in 1958 under what is called the “School Pact” that ended the “Second School War.”
Belgium’s School Wars were part of a larger battle over church and state. In a multi-ethnic, multi-lingual and multi-confessional nation, conflicts over education are inevitable, but Belgium’s School Wars centered around the Catholic Church’s attempt to maintain its dominance by fending off competition from secular public schools. This eventually ended in a truce: Funding both kinds of schools and letting parents choose between them.
Similar systems were adopted, for similar reasons, in the Netherlands, Ireland and elsewhere. In most cases, this is not quite school choice as we know it. Religious schools are funded directly by government in a way that is not compatible with our First Amendment prohibition on state establishment of religion. In the American system, the funding has to go to the parents, and then the parents spend it on the schools of their choice.
In some European countries, including Sweden, school choice has been adopted as a way of giving parents more options with regard to the quality of schools. In Britain, this centers around what we call “charter schools,” schools funded and run by the government, but in a way that circumvents the restrictions, regulations and left-wing fads favored by local (read: Labour Party-led) governments. But the goal in these cases is also to let parents have some choice over the “philosophical character” of their kids’ school, a term wider than religion that encompasses differences in secular ideologies.
America has faced all of these issues before. In the 19th century, shortly after the creation of our first public school systems, the nation was roiled by conflicts between Protestant and Catholic teaching. Many states originally mandated religious instruction, which took the form of readings from the King James Version (KJV) of the Bible. But this angered Catholics, who regarded the KJV as a Protestant interpretation of the Bible—and many American Protestants promoted it precisely for that reason. Over decades and across the country, this led to protests, riots and court cases, from Boston to Philadelphia to Cincinnati to Wisconsin. It is ironic that today, some of the loudest advocates of breaking down the separation of church and state are conservative Catholics. Yet historically, the teaching of religion in public schools was in instrument of denominational favoritism used against Catholics.
The solution to our first school wars was ultimately to push religion out of the classroom. By keeping public education secular, we could keep it denominationally neutral and end the school wars. But secular schools did not remain philosophically neutral, and the problem today is the rise of a new dogma—in the form of Critical Race Theory and related leftist ideologies—that has many of the characteristics of a religion, complete with original sin and confession, which is being rapidly imposed on the curriculum by its votaries. They see it as their goal to induct children in their creed in the same way and for the same reason as Sunday school: Drum it into the little tykes’ heads while they’re young, on the theory that they will remain loyal followers when they grow up.
In effect, this has created a new religious war over the schools—not Catholic versus Protestant, but woke versus non-woke. Per usual, this war of the creeds involves impositions on individual liberty from both sides. The woke want to force your kids to define themselves as oppressors and victims, but the answer from the traditionalists is increasingly to fight back against this by monitoring and controlling what goes on in the classroom. As I have warned elsewhere, this means laws that would ban the teaching of whole areas of history and call forth an army of legal vigilantes to snitch on misbehaving teachers for a reward. By the rules of this creed war, the question isn’t whether the public schools engage in indoctrination. The question is who gets to do the indoctrinating.
School choice offers us a much better solution. It provides the basis for a School Pact in the same way and for the same reason that they arrived at one in Europe. Imagine that instead of just shunting everyone into the public schools, your state government offered you a voucher or tax credit to spend on your child’s education. Do you want your kids to be inculcated with traditional values? Send them to a private religious school of the denomination of your choice. Do you want them to be so woke they can’t get to sleep at night? Fine, you can do that, too, and there are plenty of private schools that will accommodate you. Or, like the majority of us, do you want a school that will just teach the three R’s and leave you and your kids to iron out your political loyalties on your own? I suspect there will be quite a large market for this.
What school choice doesn’t do is to help politicians make the choice of ideology and values for everyone else’s kids, one way or the other. It won’t help activists push weird leftist fads into the curriculum, nor will it justify a conservative surveillance state to ferret out the teaching of unapproved ideas.
School choice offers many other advantages, such as allowing people who live in areas with failing public schools to seek out better alternatives. (Indeed, one of the effects of school choice is to improve public schools by putting them under the pressure of competition.) That’s as opposed to the system we have now, where people pay plenty of money for public education—in the form of a big premium to buy a house in a district with good schools. School choice might even offer us some refuge from the bizarre COVID culture war, allowing parents to choose a school that embraces the level of pandemic precautions they prefer, somewhere on the spectrum from reckless disregard to paranoia.
But most of all, school choice shows how freedom helps us achieve social peace, offering us a way out of the endless culture war by allowing us each to choose an education with the “philosophical character” that makes the most sense to us.