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Friday, March 2, 2007

Religion in the Schools

No matter how good many private schools are, in one crucial respect they can never be equal to the government's schools: they aren't government schools. To libertarians this is good thing. But to many people it is a fatal flaw.

For such people modern statism, sometimes called democracy, isn't merely a way to accomplish a goal. It's a secular religion. The test is not how well it does things but whether in some theoretical way it fulfills its promise to carry out the will of The People. (The People is not to be confused with the group of persons we call society.) Thus to demonstrate that another way of doing things–privatization, say–can accomplish a goal better misses the point.

The religion of statism pervades society. Professional intellectuals function as preachers who constantly remind the flock of the virtues of the politics and insist on the observance of its rituals. For example, during elections the right to vote is lauded as the most sacred of rights. (More sacred than property, contract, and privacy, that is, autonomy?)

Writing in the Washington Post last fall, Jennifer Booher-Jennings provided a good application of the religion of statism to education. She wrote, Public education [is] an institution charged with disbursing equality of opportunity for all childrenhellip;. In our loftiest moments, we see public education as one place where we dispense with the blunt, utilitarian logic of triage [rationing of resources] and seek equal treatment for all.

Booher-Jennings is not likely to be convinced that private education could be as good as (not to mention better than) government education because for her, good contains democratic-statist considerations such as equal treatment — whatever than may mean. (I say democratic-statist to distinguish political democracy from what many see as the true democracy of the free market.) Remember, the public schools were originally known as common schools. The system's virtue was said lie in its aspiration to provide a common experience to all children. This meant, in the words of the father of the American common school, Horace Mann, a common foundation of literacy, morality, and patriotism, regardless of their [students'] origins, through free public schools supported by taxes, with compulsory school attendance and supervision at the state level.

I suspect some parents feel a conflict between their wish to give their kids the best education possible and their democratic-statist convictions, and many who overcome the latter and give in to the former may feel some guilt about doing so. Pulling your children out of public school can bring accusations of betrayal and elitism. This shows how strong the religious aspect of democratic statism can be.

Another statement of the secular-religious nature of the schools was pronounced in an Ohio Supreme Court case upholding charter schools. The lawsuit, filed by public-school officials, teachers, and some parents, claimed in part that charter schools violate the state constitution's provision that The General Assembly shall make such provisions, by taxation, or otherwise, as hellip; will secure a thorough and efficient system of common schools throughout the state. The majority on the court did not agree and ruled that the so-called Thorough and Efficient clause was not violated by charter schools. (Charter schools are objectionable for reasons given below, but that is not what I want to draw attention to here.)

But one justice, Alice Robie Resnick, dissented because the charter-school program produces a hodgepodge of uncommon schools financed by the state. Rather than 'add[ing] to the traditional school system', or 'providing for community schools within that system' of common schools, as the majority postulates, [the program] effects a schismatic educational program under which an assemblage of divergent and deregulated privately owned and managed community schools competes against public schools for public funds.

In support of her dissent, Justice Resnick quotes Molly O'Brien and Amanda Woodrum, two authors who unwittingly emphasize the religious nature of democratically based schools: For the framers of the Ohio Constitution’s education clauses, the only education worthy of public support was a lsquo;common’ education, not in the sense that it was provided for the common folks, but in the sense that it would bring diverse people together. They chose the common school concept to promote social harmony, create a sense of national identity, and develop affinity. Moreover, in choosing to mandate the creation of a system of common schools, the constitutional framers rejected the idea of simply subsidizing the existing diverse, parent-initiated and tuition-based schooling arrangements in favor of creating state organization and oversight. They viewed the diversity of the existing arrangements as an impediment to educational progress. The constitutional framers rejected the proliferation of diverse schools in favor of a single system. (Emphasis added.)


Monopoly Presumption

There's nothing wrong with promoting social harmony, of course, but why the assumption that a coercive monopoly is required or up to the task? It is worth emphasizing that Horace Mann and his followers viewed diversity as a threat to their program. Mann said, There is a public evil of great magnitude in the multiplicity and diversity of elementary books. They crowd the market and infest the schools…. Truth and philosophy, in regard to teaching, assume so many shapes that common minds begin to doubt whether there be truth of philosophy under any.

We've come a long way. Today diversity (in a superficial sense) is the altar on which all other principles, especially freedom, may be sacrificed. Strange that O'Brien and Woodrum miss that point.

Justice Resnick is appalled that the charter schools are exempt from the provisions … which require public schools to ensure that 'the principles of democracy and ethics are emphasized and discussed wherever appropriate in all parts of the curriculum' and to encourage all employees to be aware of their roles 'in instilling ethical principles and democratic ideals in all district pupils.' (Emphasis added.)

In other words, the state is the preferred educator because only the state embodies the democratic spirit. By definition, no private school, no matter how academically superior, could ever be satisfactory. In this view, while private schools and homeschooling may have to be tolerated (barely), they surely must not be encouraged or allowed compete with the state schools for tax money.

This last part is true. Charter and voucher schools are objectionable in part because the taxpayers are forced to support them. No schools should receive tax money. That's what separation of school and state means.

Full separation will come only when people give up their implicit statist-democratic religion and stop believing that politicians and bureaucrats can represent their children's interests in education.

  • Sheldon Richman is the former editor of The Freeman and a contributor to The Concise Encyclopedia of Economics. He is the author of Separating School and State: How to Liberate America's Families and thousands of articles.