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.

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  1. […] Government Control Turns Schools into Partisan Battlegrounds   Reason […]

  2. “The Board of Education ultimately rejected a controversial proposal to eliminate such figures as Hillary Clinton from lessons.”
    It would be important to teach about the scandals involving Hillary, and her unrelenting attacks on women who reported sexual assaults. In addition, math classes could use her funding approaches as examples. Discussion of speaking fees from foreign governments could enliven free speech classes. And no lessons on foreign policy can ignore the effectiveness of her term a Secretary of State, and the magnificent defense of Benghazi.

    1. And that’s the sum total of Hillary Clinton. She contributed nothing positive to this country. There’s only so much time schools can spend on people who accomplished something for this country. Anyone who thinks this bitter old loser should be part of that discussion is an idiot.

    2. I would have to wonder what sort of school lessons would reference her anyway?

      She’s not ‘current events’ – so there goes social studies.

      She’s not historically important, not in deep history nor in more recent history.

      She certainly doesn’t have anything to teach in regards to science, english, or math.

    1. I have to wonder what the point of these trackback links are if you don’t include the link.

      1. The link to the referencing article is built into the “commentor” name.

  3. “That may be the very best reason to keep government out of education and away from our kids.”

    Thought exercise:

    A child in a public school stands up in the middle of class and starts shouting in protest of (pick a political issue). Clearly, the public school (government) has no authority to silence him and is prohibited from doing so under 1A. This disruption also, clearly, inhibits the other class participants from accomplishing the purpose for their attendance. The two cannot exist simultaneously.

    So, is the proper course of action to carve out an exception to 1A and allow a government agency to silence a US citizen in a public place (as we’ve done), OR perhaps we come to the conclusion that when we find ourselves facing such a conflict of rights vs productivity that we’ve stumbled upon a human endeavor that government had no business being involved in?

    There is no way, in this instance, that government can provide an education without violating the Constitution. OTOH, there is no such violation if a private organization were providing the service.

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

    This isn’t about what’s best for families or children. This is about what’s best for the state.

    1. As is EVERYTHING the state does.

      1. Statists will celebrate historical figures who succeeded in expanding the power of the federal government, thus encouraging young people to continue that work. You don’t make history books in 2019 by advocating for a reduction in government scope.

  5. When the government does nothing, there are no political discussions. When the government does everything, everything is a political discussion.

    Now class, given those premises, if you were to see more and more arguments about politics, would you think that would imply that there were more things done by government, fewer things done by government, or the same amount of things?

    The solution to all of this is, of course, quite simple. Government shouldn’t do stuff.

  6. 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.

    I agree – but that doesn’t actually require the extreme of purely privatized education with its serious problems. Privatized education does NOT require that it take place in a separate facility. That only occurs because public education facilities can’t seem to separate infrastructure from operations. But it ain’t difficult.

    Those infrastructure facilities benefit ALL local landowners whether they have children or not because proximity to a ‘good school’ is and will always be a major driver of land prices. Prop/land taxes are then the proper funding mechanism for that – and arguments about how to make that spending more efficient can concentrate on ‘why do we have all these effing administrators’, ‘do we really need a new gym’, ‘can we do school buses or cafeterias more efficiently’, ‘are there ways to rent out or provide additional services from those facilities when school is not in session’ etc

    Operations are what happen inside the classroom. Those obviously benefit kids – or should. But the spending components are rather limited – materials and teacher pay during teaching time. Every sort of curriculum that gets demand from parents/kids to fill a class should be able to schedule that classroom from that facility – a creationism class next to an evolution class, a ‘charter’ curriculum using the public facility, Montessori next to apprenticeship/work based next to classicist ‘homeschool’, etc. How to pay is slightly different – some direct parental, some ‘endowment’ from either benefactors or facility rental fees, etc.

    Would unions oppose that? Yes – but not many of their members. Would everyone who wants to impose a state/fed/other ideology? Yes – but pragmatics usually trumps ideology in this country or used to

    1. Our last “Pragmatist President” was Richard Nixon.

      1. Maybe. But the fact that you bring up the Prez as relevant is a big part of the problem. In 1929, there were 250,000 individual K-12 schools in the US – most (except in South and New England) individually managed with their own govtl entity and tax base. Prez’ didn’t even speak much about ‘education’ and would’ve offended the million+ Americans on school boards if they had. Cheap, low taxes, few administrators, and generally good results too.

        Now there are 130,000 – but their mgmt has generally been consolidate into about 15,000 school districts (run entirely by full-time professionals). And even that is too confusing for people who think it should be consolidated further into 50 or even 1 with the need for mighty ideological battles to determine whose ideas get to control the whole.

        The more decentralized/local, the more pragmatic and Hayekian. The more centralized, the more ideological. The latter also allows us to be lazy (never any pressure to actually volunteer for school board ourselves like our greatgrandparents were pressured to do). Our role is limited solely to picking someone else’s idea and paying for it. Maybe that is who we are now. I hope not.

    2. A lot of government “services” provide some kind of small add-on benefit to non-users. Should non-golfers help pay for the costs of a municipal golf course because a golf course enhances the value of the town? And should the non-users fork over the same amount as users? That’s what we do with public schools. Why should non-users pay the same amount as users when the users get most of the benefit?

    3. “Those infrastructure facilities benefit ALL local landowners whether they have children or not because proximity to a ‘good school’ is and will always be a major driver of land prices”

      I disagree.

      That will benefit those who are *looking to sell their property* or those using that property to back an loan. It doesn’t benefit property owners who are not looking to do either of those things – which is most property owners – and are not utilizing that improvement.

      It can even be a net loss for those people. As property value rises, property taxes rise. And not just to cover the costs of these improvements – though you’ll certainly be taxed to cover that. Once an improvement is built, your taxes do not go down.

      In fact, its the local government that captures the vast majority of any benefit of rising property values – not property owners.

      Let me give you an example;

      I own a house. You build a good school. My property is now more valuable to people who want access to that school. I will not make use of that school. But my annual tax bill increases. So you have, in effect, *decreased* my property’s value to me.

  7. Surprised? The Calgary Herald of May 1, 1929 reports Mullolini and the Pope agreeing to catechism in government schools. Teachers under fascism were ordered to see to it that Italian youth “be Christian in thought, sentiment and action.” The difference between christian fascism and those other, ungodly forms of socialism could NOT be any clearer–especially to non-socialist Americans.

    1. Yes, and to the Fascists, “Christian” meant someone purely obedient to the State.

      “Christianity is not dependent upon the Apostle’s Creed … True Christianity is represented by the party…” – Hans Kerrl, a real Fascist

    2. Interesting that a Canadian paper should have had that story since most Canadian provinces have “separate” public schools for Catholics and Protestants and the catechism is most certainly taught in the separate Catholic schools.

  8. The Calgary Herald spelt it Mussolini…

    1. They spelled Mullolini as “Mussolini”? Which of them complained?

  9. Decades ago, someone a lot smarter than me once said public education is as bad as public toilets.
    I haven’t been able to refute that idea to this day.

    1. How will my children be properly socialized if they aren’t exposed to the diverse characters who lurk I mean enrichen our wonderful public toilet institutions?!

      1. According to my son, a third grader at our local public school, and one of the nicer schools in our district at that, the toilets in the school are so bad that he refuses to use them (kids literally shit on the floor). So public schools= public toilets^2

        Note-he will be attending a private school next year, not just because of the toilets, but mostly because in his own words, he has learned nothing.

  10. Abolish the Department of Education.

  11. We could always call it a confederation.

  12. The COTUS uses the word “democracy” exactly zero times. OTOH, Section. 4. says that


    Sounds pretty straightforward to me. Except that, I suppose some people might disagree with whether today’s Republican Party is actually fulfilling the role of a “Republican Form of Government”.

  13. Not sure what happened there but the words “The United States shall guarantee to every State in this Union a Republican Form of Government” were supposed to appear where the period is on the second line.

    And some other stuff about how thw comment is formatted.

    1. That was also supposed to appear as a reply to my comment at 6:44 pm

  14. If someone has a reform to make the regular schools suck a bit less, then support that reform as a concerned citizen. And if someone has an idea that they say will totally make the regular schools more awesome than the schools of choice, then respectfully listen, but don’t recklessly throw your kids into the we-promise-we-reformed-now schools, check them out first. Just a suggestion.

  15. If you want to indoctrinate your kid with your own brand of bullshit and shelter them from reality, keep them at home. Appalachians do it all the time.

    If you want them to learn about reality, truth, all you need to do is value it yourself. Lead by example.

  16. “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.‘“

    Why not just call it what it is: a representative democracy?

    1. Then we wouldn’t have two conflicting government “cable bundles” to divide and conquer us.

      The truth is the only thing we share in peace.

    2. I prefer democratically elected constitutional republic myself, although you can cram representative in there too.

  17. […] J.D. Tuccille of Reason explains how school boards are at each other’s throats in their disagreements over curricula and especially regarding social studies courses. Conservative vs. liberal, Republican vs. Democrat, and even whether America is a “republic” or a “democracy.” […]

  18. We are a Constituted Federated Democratic Republic:
    Constituted in that we have a Constitution that is “supposed” to serve as a basis and chartered limit on the government. It is the rule book the government MUST follow (it doesn’t… that’s another issue).

    Federated in that there “were” distinct layers of government, each with their own unique and limited jurisdiction by and large. That, too, has gone out the window.

    Democratic in that the power of the state was to be derived from the people through their expression of will via voting. A number of issues, mainly at the more local issues, were democratically solved as this is where the most agreement would have ideally been found. No need to try and make otherwise differing groups agree on a universal set of rules on things that ultimately didn’t matter. Didn’t follow that plan well, either.

    Republic in that the big, complex stuff was to be handled by guys who thought the job was more interesting that farming or whatever. Most people don’t care, so they outsource the job to these people and send them away to DC to solve a few major issues but otherwise leave us alone. And you guessed it… this part of the system got tossed pretty damn fast, too.

    So what are we, then, if not these things? We are F’d. That’s what.

  19. Socialist Education = Monopolized Child Indoctrination
    A Dictated Educated. No Choices. Greed and Power rules entirely.

    Private Education Market = Diverse set of choices/education
    Only Real-World and Practical Educational Institutes become Winners by VALUE-ADDED to society.

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