Ideas

The Only Liberal Answer on Schools Is Choice

Instead of an endless contest over who controls the schools, why not give control back to parents?

Published by
Robert Tracinski

They’re at it again. The “Moms for Liberty” grassroots group, which despite its self-flattering name seems less concerned about liberty than about imposing its own church lady censoriousness, is out to ban books from school libraries, this time targeting Kurt Vonnegut’s “Slaughterhouse-Five”—an old favorite of the book-banners.

Moms for Liberty started out under the guise of giving parents more control over their kids’ education, but in practice what they’re trying to do is to give some parents more control over the education of everybody else’s kids. The head of the Kurt Vonnegut Museum and Library, Julia Whitehead, lays out the issue succinctly. “The whims of one group of moms are not the law of our land.”

In a way, though, this episode is emblematic of our approach to setting curriculum for public education: a small faction deciding what everyone else is not allowed to read.

A while back, it was a Massachusetts public school teacher boasting that she was “very proud to say we got the “Odyssey” removed from the curriculum this year.” This was part of a left-wing effort to “rebuild the literary canon using an antibias, antiracist critical literacy lens.” Homer may be one of the foundational figures of Western literature, but poets from 800 B.C. aren’t “progressive” enough for the 21st century, so he has to go.

These are just two small examples, and this is not happening everywhere, but they are volleys in a never-ending war in which each side tries to wrest control of state-run schools to impose their values and agenda. But what if there’s a better way? What if we actually decided to give parents control over their own children’s education—and nobody else’s?

The School Wars

I have previously written about a European solution for our school wars. In the decades following World War II, several European countries found themselves embroiled in conflicts over what ought to be taught in their schools, often between Protestants and Catholics or between advocates of religious and secular education. So they long ago adopted systems in which parents are empowered to choose between different schools and different approaches to education. It is an approach that allows greater freedom and pluralism, while also defusing conflict and helping to preserve social peace.

It is no accident that our current system of public schooling does not embrace pluralism. Throughout their history, one of the deliberate goals of America’s public schools has been precisely their role in indoctrinating students from our multi-ethnic, multi-religious society in common values and trying to mold a common American culture—as defined and designed by a small number of elites. Early on, for example, one of the purposes of public schools was to compete with Catholic-sponsored parochial schools and substitute a state-approved religious education that was nominally nonsectarian but in fact slanted toward Protestantism.

It is no surprise that this approach failed, but the legacy it left is that everyone thinks of the schools as their property, as a prize to be seized and used to impose their values on everyone else. This is enabled by the nature of school board hearings and elections, where most policy is decided by the small minority of whoever has the time to show up and the energy to yell at people, which tends to put disproportionate power in the hands of the woke scolds and the church ladies.

You could blame parents for not being more engaged, but—well, have you met parents of young kids? They don’t have a lot of free time. Things have to get really out of hand—as they did recently in a San Francisco school board recall vote—before normal parents become motivated and organized enough to rein in the excesses of the politically obsessed factions. This is why, even though school boards nominally answer to the will of the people, it so often seems to parents that they have no control over how the public school system operates.

Give Parents Real Control

There is a far easier and more direct way to give parents real control: school choice. I would prefer the kind of school choice reform in which parents are liberated to spend their own money. When you think about it, it’s insane that the wealthiest middle class in all of human history is heavily taxed mostly to provide benefits to these very same people—just with lower quality and fewer options than if they had paid for them themselves.

We all pay almost 15% of our incomes to Social Security, but most of us will get back far less than we would have if we had put that money into our own savings. The same applies to education, so I would like to see a system of state and federal tax credits that would offset private education spending, along with equivalent tax credits for those who donate money to scholarships for students from low-income families. Surely, a nation as wealthy as ours could finance everyone’s education in this way.

What we are more likely to get is a system of school vouchers, in which parents’ tax money is returned to them in the form of vouchers that can be used for either private or public schools. This is similar to how most other forms of government assistance work: You get a check from the government, which you can then spend on a provider of your choice. We have food stamps, not government-run grocery stores, Medicare and not nationalized hospitals. So why do we have government-run schools, instead of giving people money they can spend on the school they prefer? Why, if not for the mania to have the state control the content of education?

The Great National Experiment in Uniformity

Education is an area where personal choice should be regarded as especially imperative. There is nothing more personally important than the choice of how your kids are going to learn, the kind of school environment where they will spend their days, and the kind of values they will be taught when they are outside the home.

School choice is not just about choosing the ideological content of your kids’ education, but perhaps more importantly, it’s about the teaching methods and standards. Most of us, I would guess, care less about the exact ideological flavor of our kids’ school than about whether they’re actually learning the three R’s. I’ve sent both of my kids to a Montessori school where most of the faculty and most of the other parents are well to my left politically—but, particularly at the younger ages, that matters a whole lot less than the advantages of the Montessori method.

Instead, over the past century and a half, we have conducted a great national experiment in total uniformity, where every big fad—“progressive” education, the rejection of phonics, bogus self-esteem boosting, the current obsession with standardized testing—gets propagated either statewide or nationally until it fails. Then after it fails, it remains for decades thanks to bureaucratic inertia.

I just talked with one of my son’s former classmates who has gone on to a public high school. He mentioned that several of his classes were entirely organized around preparing students for Virginia’s “Standards of Learning” tests—so much so that after the testing was over, they spent the last month and a half just watching movies. This is a well-known problem. If you organize everything around centralized bureaucratic metrics, classes will be designed for no other purpose than hitting those metrics, rather than promoting the actual well-being of the child.

School choice would allow more diversity and experimentation with educational methods and goals. Its opponents claim to be concerned that some people might choose inadequate schools. But all too often, inadequate schools are what we’ve already got—but usually with no way for students to escape them, particularly in big cities with poorly run school systems.

Why We Fight

Why can’t we do this? Why can’t we stop battling over who gets to have control and let parents have control? Partly, it’s because of the entrenched interests of teachers’ unions, which prioritize their members’ jobs and benefits over everything else, including student achievement. But it’s also because each side conceives the culture war as an opportunity to impose their own beliefs on others.

Consider a recent proposal on the left that calls for Democrats to establish a national curriculum of civics education. How is this different from Donald Trump’s proposal for a distinctly partisan “patriotic education”? In practice, there is none because a proposal for a homogenized, nationalized civics curriculum would simply be taken over by Trump (or his equivalent) after some future election.

Too many people want to cling to the role of public schools in imposing a homogenized and homogenizing culture. But to preserve a free society we need the exact opposite: a culture of intellectual diversity, supported by a system of educational choice.

Robert Tracinski

Robert Tracinski is editor of Symposium, a journal of liberalism, and writes additional commentary at The Tracinski Letter.

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