Greg Forster, Ph.D. | January 4, 2022
We can share this country: School choice in a divided America
Greg Forster, Ph.D.
From masks and vaccine mandates to critical race theory, it seems like Americans are at war over everything. It’s time to live and let live: Put parents back in charge through school choice.
It’s no fun to work on a school board these days; when it comes to schools, it seems like Red and Blue America are at war over everything. But as bleak as things may seem, we can share this country. The time is ripe to rediscover the American idea of equality of rights under the rule of law, letting us live and let live. In K-12 education, that means breaking the government monopoly and putting parents back in charge through school choice.
These are boom times if you belong to the governing class that makes a living off political conflict. And schools have become the hottest flashpoint, from masks and vaccine mandates to critical race theory (CRT). No surprise there—education has always summoned up the most intense emotions, both because parents care so much about their own children and because schools shape the future citizens who will in turn shape the country.
These intense emotions surrounding education have always presented an unsolvable problem for the government school monopoly. We shove all kids into a single monopoly school system based on the notion that dispassionate educational experts will discover and implement the One Best Way to run schools, but it has never actually worked out that way. Government schools have always served the powerful, delivering at least decent service to comfortable suburban whites, while relegating the poor and the marginalized into schools that are little better than warehouses.
Today that unsolvable problem has become a crisis. Increasing polarization has raised the stakes of cultural conflict so high that even the government school monopoly is no longer able to cope. As Jonathan Haidt explained in his landmark book The Righteous Mind, even questions that seem like they ought to be resolvable through dispassionate discourse, like medical policy, are in practice subject to powerful group-membership associations that transform them into questions of fundamental decency and righteousness.
So as long as we have a government school monopoly imposing a One Best Way on all students, we will have these bottomless culture wars over education.
Nor is polarization some temporary storm we can just ride out by battening down the hatches. As the one nation on earth that has made equality of rights under the rule of law its first priority, the problem of internal cultural division—which means recurring shocks of polarization—is a permanent one for America. So as long as we have a government school monopoly imposing a One Best Way on all students, we will have these bottomless culture wars over education, because America would not be America if it were not a diverse society. Before CRT it was school prayer and sex education, and before that it was stamping out the filthy popery of Catholic students. Before that, when the monopoly was founded in Massachusetts in the 1830s, it was stamping out the atavistic barbarism of evangelical students. Not to mention the system’s permanent commitment to racial segregation, which continues de facto even after having been abolished de jure.
The only education system that aligns with our national commitment to equality under the law, instead of hopelessly trying to swim upstream against it, is school choice. Allowing all parents to educate their children according to the dictates of their own conscience would also allow America to live as the kind of genuinely pluralistic society George Washington envisioned in his Letter to the Hebrew Congregation at Newport. The whole idea of America is that you get your right to freedom of conscience, and you respect that your neighbor has the same rights.
That, by the way, is the answer to those on the Right who think they can outplay the Left on its own turf by “banning” CRT in schools. Leave aside for a moment the fact that CRT has no stable and generally accepted definition, and that the government school monopoly, to the extent that it wants to rely on CRT, will have no difficulty working around or subverting whatever laws you pass. Is America about using political power to force people to conform to the in-group, leading to an endless cycle of conflict over who gets to speak for the in-group? Or is America about protecting everyone’s right to live in the way that seems best to them, as long as they respect everyone else’s right to do the same?
Brown v. Board of Education already bans the worst excesses of CRT in its more dysfunctional manifestations. That landmark decision correctly interprets the Equal Protection Clause as barring government schools from communicating to students that a given race is superior or inferior, or inflicting psychological distress upon students because of their race. It is prudent—and long past time—for states to codify that just and wise prohibition in statutory law, as Oklahoma has recently done. However, more sweeping attempts to prohibit a broader constellation of ideas are bound to fail, not only because the system will subvert them, and not only because they ruin education by making teachers afraid to invite candid classroom conversation about sensitive issues for fear of punishment, but because the whole attempt to use political power to control thought is antithetical at its core to our national identity and constitutional order.
The whole idea of America is that you get your right to freedom of conscience, and you respect that your neighbor has the same rights.
Beyond prohibiting the most extreme abuses, the way to get education that really raises kids to believe in equality of rights under the rule of law is school choice. Most parents of color agree with that vision of America—equality of rights is what they spent centuries fighting for, after all. What they want from schools is not indoctrination in extreme ideologies, but the Three Rs and sound character virtues. Put them in charge, and that’s what they’ll choose.
Of course, like all other parents, they’ll also expect schools to affirm their human dignity and the contributions of their cultural identity—which white parents, to be blunt, have always taken for granted. “Kiss Me I’m Irish” doesn’t mean “Punch Greg in the Face, He’s Italian.” Most parents of color want their kids to have exactly the same kind of benign ethnic pride that I was raised in as the great-grandson of Vito Augustino, who had his name accidentally changed to Augustino Vito on the paperwork when he came through Ellis Island, and instead of carrying resentment about it, loved his new country so much that he chose to stick with his new American name for the rest of his life.
No doubt there are some parents who really want radical schools. You know what? If you deny those families the right to raise their own children according to their own conscience, you don’t strengthen the American experiment, you undermine it. The same power that some want to use to turn radicals’ kids against their parents in the name of nationalism was used in 1830s Massachusetts to turn evangelicals’ kids against their parents in the name of a hyper-modernized “Christianity” based on Unitarian moralistic legalism. Where does it end?
If we want to do justice, respect the natural family, and live up to the aspiration of the American experiment, we have to let people believe what they believe. That’s called “freedom,” my brothers and sisters—that’s what the word means. All 50 states have long had laws on the books (admittedly, some are better crafted than others) forbidding any school, public or private, from teaching children to break the law or overthrow the government. Beyond that, we have to win people over with arguments instead of taking their children hostage in an eternal Nietzschean culture war.
A strong, confident America wouldn’t be worried about a few radicals—it would be pleased to see proof that our national promise of free thought has been fully kept. In a fair contest of ideas, equality of rights under the rule of law will win the argument, because it’s right, and because all other approaches descend rapidly into endlessly destructive political war. School choice creates the necessary conditions for that fair contest of ideas. If we take the risk of trusting one another to raise our own children, we really can share this country.
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).