Greg Forster, Ph.D. | March 2, 2022
The solution to sexualized schools is parent choice, not new regulations
Greg Forster, Ph.D.
Traditionalists are right that the government school system has proven that it can’t be trusted; that’s precisely why they’re wrong to think they can take control of it. The best way to cope with the challenge of sexualized schools is to put parents back in charge by letting them take the public funding that supports their children’s education to the school of their choice.
Americans have been at war over sex in schools for almost a century. But we now seem to be entering a new round of especially intense fighting in this eternal struggle over what is the One Best Sexuality into which the government school monopoly should indoctrinate all children. It’s long past time we left behind this century-long merry-go-round of destructive conflict, which seems to have produced nothing other than continuous cultural decline. School choice would allow parents to trust their schools with their children again, and allow America to find a path toward social peace amid deep differences.
Just like in every state, this issue has been on the boil in Oklahoma over the last few years. Tradition-minded and progressive-minded parents have been at loggerheads over a controversial state-funded sex-ed curriculum as well as other curricular materials on sexuality; an “inclusive” Tulsa sex-ed program for seventh-graders; a Putnam City high-school teacher publicly endorsing transgenderism and demanding that anyone who identifies as a girl be allowed to play girls’ sports; a Norman high-school library’s social media posts; Edmond middle-schoolers being asked for their preferred pronouns; explicit books in Bristow schools; and a middle-school teacher nominated for statewide teacher of the year publicly endorsing middle-schoolers’ “exploring” of transgender identity.
And, of course, there are major national news stories as well. A prominent “detransitioner” recently shared her story of how her government school helped her arrange to get hormone injections that would have permanent effects on her health, behind the backs of her parents—even though she clearly told the school that her parents were opposed. Texas, whose state laws already forbid minors to undergo some transgender operations, is taking steps to broaden the scope and enforcement of these laws, which will certainly affect schools. This is on top of Texas passing a law last year requiring student athletes to play on the teams that correspond to the sex on their birth certificates. Florida is prohibiting government schools from even discussing sexual orientation or gender identity; legislators retreated from an amendment to the new law that would have required schools to provide parents with certain information about students’ sexuality if the student shared it with school personnel.
We could adjudicate the merits of all these individual cases. In some I think the traditionalists’ concerns are valid; in others I think the traditionalists go too far. I’m never shy about stating my views on sexual morality; if you want to find out what they are, be my guest.
For now, though, I’m more interested in why this is happening—and, in particular, why a century of fighting about sex in schools seems to have produced nothing but more fighting about sex in schools. In the early 20th century, it was whether there should be “sex ed” in schools at all. From that point on, it was what should be taught, when and how. From birth control and AIDS to homosexuality and now transgenderism, we’ve never lacked for subjects to fight about.
Like it or not, the modern world is persistently pluralistic. We can no longer assume that our neighbors believe the same way we do about the things that matter most in life. Partly that’s a direct result of the American experiment in religious freedom; people who disagree about God are going to disagree about many other things as well—about sex perhaps most of all, since sex has been closely tied to the sacred in all human cultures. And partly it’s a side effect of economic and technological development, which makes it much faster and cheaper to make radical changes in how we see ourselves and how we live. In a world where teenagers literally carry a phone-shaped window to the entire world around with them in their pockets all day, it’s unreasonable to expect the same kind of homogenous communities that used to be normal.
We neither can nor should try to go back to the old days. We can’t, because we can’t un-invent the political, economic, and technological innovations—the U.S. Constitution above all—that create the conditions of social pluralism. And we shouldn’t, because George Washington was right when he wrote to the Hebrew Congregation at Newport that America would not be America if it tried to make anyone a second-class citizen because they didn’t share their neighbors’ belief system.
Of course that doesn’t mean there are no legitimate concerns here. For starters, no school should be helping minors obtain medical interventions against their parents’ express wishes. A free society also does have to impose some limitations on sexual license to sustain the social conditions necessary for freedom. And if we’re going to have a government school system, it does have to teach something about human sexuality, so it’s valid to process our disagreements about what that should be. (Even the decision not to teach anything about sexuality would implicitly teach students a number of important lessons about sexuality, which is exactly why there was so much fierce opposition when the idea of sex ed was first introduced a century ago.)
The point is that we can’t legislate and regulate our way back to cultural coherence. The old social consensus on sexuality could be taught in schools with genuine pedagogical effectiveness only because it was a genuine expression of the shared views of a homogenous society. Today we simply aren’t homogenous any more—not even in the deep-red or deep-blue states.
And anyway, one thing we’ve learned in a century of fights about education reform—not just on sexuality but on every educational issue—is that when the classroom doors close, the teachers ignore the rulebook and do whatever they want. Not all the laws and regulations and audits and snooper-tip-hotlines in the world are going to change that. Traditionalists are right that the government school system has proven that it can’t be trusted; that’s precisely why they’re wrong to think they can take control of it.
The best way to cope with this challenge is putting parents back in charge of education, by letting them take the public funding that supports their children’s education to the school of their choice, public or private. Instead of fighting over what sexuality is the One Best Sexuality that all children must be indoctrinated into, we can let each family make its own decisions. Traditionalists can have traditionalist schools, and progressives can have progressive schools.
Above all, this would restore the bond of trust between parents and schools. Parents would know that their children were receiving an education they support. Schools could finally get a break from being constantly torn to shreds by culture warriors trying to seize control of them, and get back to teaching.
And—don’t miss the importance of this—students would know that the messages they hear about sexuality in the classroom are also supported at home, and vice versa. They would grow up in a morally coherent social world, instead of growing up amid constant fighting between competing authority figures over which morality is right. I’m a traditionalist on sexual issues, but in my opinion, children are much more harmed by growing up in an environment of moral incoherence and conflict between authority figures than in an environment of stable, coherent progressivism. Kids in self-consciously progressive schools at least learn that there’s such a thing as right and wrong, and have a firm sense of how vitally important it is to pursue the right. At the rate we’re going, that puts them well ahead of the average American teenager in the government monopoly system, who typically learns only that there are a lot of different opinions out there, and no one can say who’s right. It’s mostly those kids, not the “red diaper babies,” who end up using porn, getting divorced, or mutilating their bodies.
In the long run, what matters most is not which side is right in this or that particular case or controversy. What matters most is whether we’re going to continue to have an educational system that takes us down the road of constant cultural infighting we’ve been going down, consistently, for a century. Putting parents back in charge would give both sides what they want most, would keep faith with the American experiment, and would give our kids the chance to grow up as something other than hostages in their parents’ culture wars.
Greg Forster, Ph.D.
Greg Forster (Ph.D., Yale University) is a Friedman Fellow with EdChoice. He has conducted numerous empirical studies on education issues, including school choice, accountability testing, graduation rates, student demographics, and special education. The author of nine books and the co-editor of six books, Dr. Forster has also written numerous articles in peer-reviewed academic journals, as well as in popular publications such as The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, and the Chronicle of Higher Education. His latest book is Economics: A Student’s Guide (Crossway, 2019).