- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 24, 2007

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 Tuesday 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 arrangement might be the best way 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 how it is taught — in both public and 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, but years of conflict and debate have led most schools to an effective middle 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 2005-06 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 like-minded 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 parents who disagree have the freedom to take their money elsewhere.

“McCluskey is raising an important point,” said Dan Lips, an education analyst at the conservative 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 make the study an annual benchmark so people will begin to debate the traditionally held belief that public schools produce a unified society.

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