Despite the touchy-feely pronouncements of their proponents, America’s Public Schools have become battlegrounds over divisive issues that divide an already divided nation even further. “Indeed, rather than bringing people together, public schooling often forces people of disparate backgrounds and beliefs into political combat,” Neal McCluskey writes in a study for the Cato Institute. “This paper tracks almost 150 such incidents in the 2005–06 school year alone.”
“Whether over the teaching of evolution, the content of library books, religious expression in the schools, or several other common points of contention, conflict was constant in American public education last year.”
As McCluskey lays out his data, drawn from media accounts, his information shows that the propensity of schools to erupt into civil conflicts is usually related to the degree to which those institutions have strayed from the teaching of basic skills and knowledge. When they are taught, algebra, grammar and the laws of gravity usually don’t lead to court cases and confrontational school board meetings.
“Moreover, we found that over the last year only one state—Wyoming—appeared to have dodged divisive, values-laden school warfare, and many states suffered numerous clashes,” McCluskey writes in “Why We Fight: How Public Schools Cause Social Conflict.” “Even Wyoming suffered at least two such conflicts as recently as 2003.”
“In all, we tracked nearly 150 values-driven public school conflicts over the past year.” In order, here are the “values-driven conflicts” and the number of states they play out in:
• Freedom of Expression—20 states
• Intelligent Design—18 states
• Religion—17 states
• Sex education—13 states
• Multiculturalism—11 states
• Homosexuality—8 states
• Book banning—8 states
• Mandated integration—5 states.
As you may imagine, some of these categories overlap. “Relatively homogenous Carroll County, Maryland, was also beset by a censorship controversy when, at the request of some district parents, Superintendent Charles I. Ecker pulled The Earth, My Butt, and Other Big Round Things from schools’ shelves,” McCluskey writes. “The award-winning book depicted such things as self-mutilation and date rape that the aggrieved parents thought inappropriate for children.”
“After a great outcry from members of the community who wanted the book restored, however, Ecker consented to returning the book to high school shelves while maintaining the ban in middle schools.”
Defenders of the status quo see such conflicts as not only inevitable but possibly even desirable. “In one week I got calls from a Wiccan high priestess in North Carolina, a Utah parent who wanted to know if a student could be sent home for wearing a ‘Choose the Right’ t-shirt commonly associated with the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints and a student who wants to mount a challenge to a rule banning profanity in the student life center,” Charles Haynes said at Cato.
Haynes, a senior scholar and director of education programs at the Freedom Forum First Amendment Center, spoke on the same panel as McCluskey at Cato. Unlike McCluskey, he sees progress in the resolution of such conflicts.
“Twenty years ago, public schools almost became religion-free zones,” Haynes said. “Today most textbooks mention religion.”
“We’ve got hundreds to thousands of religious groups meeting on school property.” What Haynes does not mention is that, despite the accomplishments of his group, most of those gains have come from the efforts of conservative religious public interest law firms such as the Liberty Counsel and the Alliance Defense Fund.
But if Haynes is taking too rosy a view of public education, his perspective is more realistic than that of Gerald Bracey, who has been affiliated with both George Mason University and Arizona State University. “The two goals of public schools are to transmit the prevailing culture and to transform it,” Bracey told the audience at Cato.
Apparently, many parents have not updated Bracey. He also refuses to acknowledge either a drop in standardized test scores or an explosion in government funding that both occurred over the past forty years.
“Well, Prince Edward County in Virginia shut down their schools in response to desegregation and their scores definitely went down,” he told me when I questioned the panel about the apparently inverse relationship between educational outcomes and subsidized inputs.
“I think you can say that federal funding leads to no academic gain,” McCluskey said. Okay, I will.
Malcolm A. Kline is the executive director of Accuracy in Academia.