Saturday, June 16, 2007

Do Government Schools Worsen Social Conflict?

I recently read an interesting policy analysis released back in January by the libertarian think tank the Cato Institute entitled "Why We Fight: How Public Schools Cause Social Conflict". The paper discusses how rather than bringing Americans of diverse backgrounds together "like the gentle flame beneath the great American melting pot", government schools have instead produced "political disputes, animosity, and sometimes even bloodshed".

In the 2005-2006 school year alone, there were over 150 major values-driven conflicts that made national headlines. These ran the gamut of issues, including the battle over teaching intelligent design in Dover, PA; a high school in Fallbrook, CA banning students from carrying the American flag; the Miami-Dade school board ordering the removal of the book Vamos a Cuba on the grounds it portrayed Fidel Castro's regime in too flattering a light; the suspension of a Juneau, AK student carrying a"Bong Hits 4 Jesus" sign at a school-sanctioned event; Hindus upset with the portrayal of the religion in California's state-sanctioned history textbooks; the decision by an African-American legislator to split the Omaha, NE school district among racial lines; the passing of legislation allowing the Detroit, MI school district to establish single-sex schools; the San Francisco Board of Education voting to end the popular JROTC program; controversy over Bible in History & Literature electives in Georgia and Texas; and a lawsuit over the reading of a book promoting homosexual "marriage" to 2nd graders in Lexington, MA.

Conflicts over what should be taught in government schools are not a new phenomena. The Cato Institute paper discusses the deadly Philadelphia Bible riots that killed hundreds, stemming from a dispute over whether to use the Protestant King James version or the Catholic Douay-Rheims version in public schools. It also discusses at length the turbulence of the mid-20th century court-ordered desegregation and secularization of government schools.

The Cato paper argues that 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:
"Under our monolithic system, different cultural, ethnic, and religious groups have no choice but to enter the political melee if they want to see their values taught by the public schools."
The author argues that the solution to defusing social conflict between different groups is by
"enabling people to select schools that reflect their own values, use the curricula they desire, and so on....In other nations as well as our own, we have seen educational choice defuse social conflicts. The Netherlands, for instance, was split between Protestants, Catholics, and socialists, for generations, and these divisions caused constant battles over what should be taught in the public schools. Eventually, in a drive to end these conflicts, the Netherlands instituted a voucher system that let families choose their preferred private or public schools. By the 1960's, the social divisions that had previously torn the country apart had almost disappeared."
The Cato paper makes an interesting argument about the potential for vouchers to defuse social conflicts over public schools. I do have some concerns about vouchers, as I mentioned the other day. It is clear, however, that the current situation is very detrimental to the education of students caught in the crossfire. Something definitely needs to be done to defuse the social conflicts caused by government-run schools so that children can focus on mastering the 3 R's.

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