Public schools

Government Control Turns Schools into Partisan Battlegrounds

End the curriculum wars by letting families choose education options that work for them.


As intractable as spats over who is best at cramming knowledge into little beasts' noggins have proven to be, nothing fuels a good argument like disagreement over the content of that knowledge. Given the perceived value of getting first crack at molding children's opinions, everybody wants a hand in spinning lessons and making sure they contain the "right" take on controversial issues.

The latest battles in the eternal curriculum wars demonstrate that, even if we come to an agreement over how to teach little Johnny and Sally to read, we'll never settle our differences over what they read. That may be the very best reason to keep government out of education and away from our kids.

In Michigan, Republicans and Democrats on the state Board of Education can't even agree on whether to refer to the United States as a "republic" or a "democracy." There's a legitimate, if overblown, debate over which of those terms more accurately describes the founders' vision for our political system. But these are politicians that we're talking about—not, generally, the sharpest knives in the drawer. It's enough to point out that Republicans want the schools to describe the U.S. as a "republic" and Democrats want to call it a "democracy."

That's only the tip of the iceberg of ideological squabbling over public school standards in Michigan.

"First, conservatives complained about a draft of new social studies standards for Michigan classrooms," as Bridge, a local magazine, summarizes the debate. "Then, liberals complained about a rewrite of those standards that appeared to favor conservative views. Now, some conservatives are up in arms again over a third draft of the standards, saying they are back to being too liberal."

Partisans disagree over how public schools should teach "core values," the cold war, gay rights, climate change, the Bill of Rights, and pretty much every other hot-button issue in an era that's not exactly short of vigorous disagreement.

And 'round and 'round we go…

"Standards have been politicized not only in Michigan, but nationally," points out Venessa Keesler, the state's deputy superintendent of education.

Texas, for instance, "streamlined" its public schools' social studies curriculum last year amidst charges that the changes reflected conservative spin. The Board of Education ultimately rejected a controversial proposal to eliminate such figures as Hillary Clinton from lessons. It also voted to retain references to the heroism of the defenders of the Alamo and provided specific guidance on the causes of the Civil War, including the debate over states' rights.

"As is often the case in these debates, the board again split along party lines," the Dallas Morning News reported. "The board retained several references to 'Judeo-Christian' values and influences, and shot down an attempt to cut Moses from a high school U.S. government standard that describes him as an 'individual whose principles of laws and government institutions informed the American founding documents.'"

Celebration and criticism of the revised standards broke down over the expected partisan lines, with groups on the right cheering and groups on the left jeering the changes.

Honestly, these battles are unavoidable so long as people of varying viewpoints are forced to support commonly used schools. Interpreting history and current events for students is as inherently subjective as it is necessary. If lessons are to be anything more than dry recitations of dates and names, educators must put the world into context. That context becomes all-important when ideological groups inevitably fight to present the world to kids as they see it—and when parents hear their children innocently parroting views they've been taught in school.

"Nearly half of all respondents (49%) express concern about politics in the classroom," the Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty reported after surveying 1,400 Wisconsin voters in March. "This includes 69% of Republicans and 25% of Democrats."

You might nudge the relative happiness of Republicans and Democrats by changing the makeup of school boards and thereby altering the spin on lessons—but you won't get rid of "politics in the classroom" because you can't.

"Americans are diverse – ethnically, religiously, ideologically – but all must pay for public schools," notes the Cato Institute in the introduction to a map that tracks battles over the lessons and values taught in government-run institutions. "The intention is good: to bring people together and foster social harmony. But rather than build bridges, public schooling often forces people into wrenching conflict."

The map's Twitter feed features a litany of fierce disagreements made inevitable by the public's forced funding of public institutions. That shared burden not only sets people against each other but often deprives them of the resources to take advantage of whatever alternatives might be available.

How to end the curriculum wars? We could let people choose the educational approaches that work best for them and don't leave them at the mercy of other people's beliefs.

My homeschooled son gets a good sampling of opinions and interpretations from across the spectrum, but he has no doubt about where my wife and I are coming from. Our disdain for intrusive governments and authoritarian policies permeate what we teach him. My lesson plans might well drive a friend of mine in Los Angeles apoplectic if they were taught to her sons. But instead of using my plans or supporting our educational endeavors in any way, she's free to send her kids to a school that teaches them all about intersectionality and privilege.

My friend and I don't have to fight over educational standards for the same reason we don't have to fight over housing choices or dinner plans—we choose our own. We could all benefit by letting everybody do the same.

But won't letting people select their children's education and the ideas to which kids are exposed harden the partisan divide? The evidence suggests otherwise.

"Greater exposure to private schooling is not associated with any more or less political tolerance" than sending kids to public schools, according to Albert Cheng of the University of Arkansas's Department of Education Reform in a paper published in the Journal of School Choice. Even more interesting, "students with greater exposure to homeschooling tend to be more politically tolerant—a finding contrary to the claims of many political theorists."

Could it be that letting people choose what they like without having unwelcome viewpoints jammed down their kids' throats could actually reduce conflict? What a welcome revelation for a society that could use fewer partisan battlegrounds.