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Wednesday, November 16, 2016

Book Police Are Inherent to Public Schools

The censorship problem is a flaw integral to public systems.

In her illustrious book, The Language Police: How Pressure Groups Restrict What Students Learn (2004), Diane Ravitch discusses her outrageous experiences as a member of the National Assessment Governing Board. She illuminates several of the problems created for children and society by the language police and presents strategies for an improved system. While we ought to applaud Diane’s attempt to propose effective reform strategies within the public school system, we must identify that the system of public education is the root of the language-policing problem.

Stories with yachts are not allowed since they are associated with the lifestyle of wealthy people.The central theme of this book is that various special-interest groups within the public schooling sector pressure those who produce reading material to censor passages. When a committee must bend to the will of several different interest groups, the educational product becomes uninspiring. Diane points out that the “bias and sensitivity review” panels remove reading passages about owls, since Navajos regard owls as taboo, and even remove passages about peanuts, since some children are allergic to peanuts! Stories with dolphins are not allowed due to “regional bias” and stories with yachts are not allowed since yachts are associated with the lifestyle of wealthy people. Inadvertently, attempting to create an educational product that satisfies every single interest group results in an utterly unsatisfying, Frankenstein-like creation. Just imagine what movies would be like if producers were democratically forced to censor their creations based on the desires of voters and interest groups; we would surely end up with bland films!

And so it goes with our public education sector. Children end up with a mind-numbing educational product. While censorship may simply decrease entertainment levels in the film industry, it is especially harmful to children in the education system. Because learning is facilitated by curiosity and interest, censorship decreases the likelihood that children will have a successful educational experience. Since the quality of a child’s education is limited, and education is essential for lifelong success, censorship harms a child’s life trajectory.

Additionally, the censorship by the bias and sensitivity review panels could create additional social problems. The panels mitigate the likelihood that children will be introduced to anything outside of their own lifestyle. This creates the potential for race and wealth stratification and intolerance of outside groups of individuals. Perhaps this explains why several private school choice evaluations find that departure from the censorship in the public system of schooling leads to increased tolerance of others (Wolf, Peterson, & West, 2001; Fleming, Mitchell, & McNally, 2014). Furthermore, censorship places public school children in a sheltered environment that does not prepare them for a successful future, especially since professional success largely depends on a person’s ability to effectively network with a diverse set of individuals.

What to Do?

Ravitch proposes a few strategies within the public school system. She argues that we should create mechanisms for informing the public of what is being censored in educational products, but this argument assumes that parents do not already know that censorship is taking place in their public schools already. While it is unclear if parents know about all censorship, it is likely that parents understand that their actions will not to lead to substantial changes in schools. The large cost of pushing for change vastly exceeds the perceived benefit of potentially changing a few reading passages. Additionally, if the information is made publicly available, it is uncertain whether parents will have enough time or resources to police the language police. Furthermore, since parents are simply an additional interest group within the public sphere, parental involvement may actually exacerbate the very problem that we are attempting to resolve.

The censorship problem is a flaw integral to public systems.Ravitch also argues that we should simply increase the supply of high-quality teachers in public schools. Of course, higher quality teachers will be able to rely less on textbooks, but this policy would require substantial resources poured into teacher salaries. What would be the cost of these increased salaries? Where would we have to cut funding in order to increase the quality of teachers? Moreover, it is unclear that higher-quality teachers would go out of their way to avoid using textbooks. High-quality teachers are also rationally self-interested beings that will naturally take the route with the lowest cost, especially if alternative routes have similar financial benefits.

The censorship problem is not a result of information asymmetry or teacher quality. This is a flaw integral to public systems. As John Chubb and Terry Moe (1988) point out, “Public schools are subordinates in a hierarchic system of democratic politics, whereas private schools are largely autonomous actors” controlled by the diverse values of parents and children. Special interest groups create this problem in all public sectors: everyone ends up with a little of what they want, and a lot of what they don’t, at an enormous cost.

In the private sector, each individual family is their own special interest group that gets exactly what they want, often without any complaining at all. Families simply choose the school that has a desirable amount of censorship in reading passages. Importantly, private schools that negatively impact students in the short-run by including biased textbooks will face a shutdown condition in the long-run. Those that provide educational value will become profitable and expand their supply of high-quality experiences. The result is that children receive an interesting and successful educational experience through the simple, yet complex system of voluntary exchange.

  • Corey A. DeAngelis is the Director of School Choice at Reason Foundation and an adjunct scholar at Cato Institute.