This past weekend I took a trip with some friends down to sunny Dallas, Texas to catch some playoff baseball and college football. While the Rangers lost on Saturday, my Razorbacks defeated the Texas A&M Aggies with one pleased education policy researcher watching the game for free on the big screen TV’s on the outside of the stadium (thank you Jerry Jones!).
It’s hard to travel to Texas as a person interested in education policy and not hear about the recent controversy regarding their state standards. It has been covered ad nauseum in the press, but for those unfamiliar, the Cliff’s Notes version is that a conservative faction of the state board of education voted to change the State’s social studies curriculum in an attempt to correct what they perceived as a liberal bias in the history and politics taught in the State. Chaos ensued. Liberal groups unloaded mockery and derision, conservatives circled the wagons, and children were lost in the ideological shuffle.
I read recently some work by Cato Institute scholar Andrew Coulson, whose words are particularly prescient on this issue. He wrote:
We are all losers when our differing views become declarations of war; when, instead of allowing many distinct communities of ideas to coexist harmoniously, our schools force us to battle one another in a needless and destructive fight or ideological supremacy. If U.S. churches were run by the state as schools have been, we would have had as many religious wars in this nation as we have had school wars. We can learn a lesson from the peaceful coexistence of our private mosques, cathedrals, synagogues, and shrines: it is possible to celebrate both our varied traditions and the common ideals on which our nation is based. The totalitarian notion that schools should sanction one set of views at the expense of all others is surely not among those American ideals.
-Andrew Coulson Delivering Education (pg. 124)
The monolithic nature of the education system creates an adversarial environment where there doesn’t have to be one. Because there is only one set of standards and one curriculum in each state, there have to be winners and losers in its creation. These contentious battles create enemies, divisions, and marginalize large segments of the population. As a solution to this problem we have decided to elect school board members (or elect officials to appoint school board members) in the hope that the politicization of the process will make it more fair and democratic. However, as long as schools are organizations that are ruled by politicians, they will be political entities. As long as they are political entities, they run the risk of being co-opted by whatever group can round up the most votes. When this happens, minorities (be they racial, religious, or of varying opinion) will be oppressed and schools will fail to serve their purpose.
By using school choice, the decentralization of power can diffuse the responsibility for educating students and protect the rights and viewpoints of minorities. Sure, some schools might teach goofy things that we don’t like, but right now entire systems (like Texas) can be taken over so as to teach goofy things we don’t like. By giving parents choice, they can at least leave schools that teach something with which they disagree.
Right now, parents that lack the financial means to attend private schools are stuck with the result of the political sausage making that is standards setting, curriculum writing, and textbook adoption. If we want to protect their rights, we need to support their freedom to choose where their children go to school.