Public schooling, we are told, is the linch-pin of American unity and democracy. “If common schools go, then we are no longer America,” writes Paul D. Houston, executivedirector of the American Association of School Administrators. “The original criticalmission of the common schools was . . . to beplaces where the ideals of civic virtue werepassed down to the next generation. They wereto prepare citizens for our democracy. They were to be places where the children of ourdemocracy would learn to live together.”
In a similar vein, Benjamin R. Barber, author of thebest-selling
Jihad vs. McWorld
, asserts that pub-lic schools are “the very foundation of ourdemocratic civic culture . . . institutions wherewe learn what it means to be a public and startdown the road toward common national andcivic identity. They are the forges of our citi-zenship and the bedrock of our democracy.”
These are, without a doubt, very powerfulimages, and their widespread acceptance haslong undergirded Americans’ assumption thatgovernment-run schools have always been, andwill always be, essential to the nation’s unity.But “powerful” and “accurate” are far fromsynonymous. Consider: In the 1840s, disputesover the Bible’s place in Philadelphia’s publicschools sparked rioting that inflicted millionsof dollars in damage and killed or injured hun-dreds of people. In 1925, the Scopes “monkey trial” captured the nation’s attention as thelegality of teaching evolution in public schoolswas fought first in a Tennessee courtroom, andthen, to accommodate the thousands of peo-ple who showed up for the spectacle, on thelawn outside the courthouse. In the mid-1970s, court-ordered busing of children inBoston precipitated constant brawling in theschools and unrest in the streets. Finally, justthis past school year, tensions were so high inMiami over the removal of books from schoollibraries that one school board member report-ed that his colleagues feared that they “mightfind a bomb under their automobiles.”
These and countless incidents like themreveal deep cracks in the “unity and democracy”argument for public schooling. Moreover, as weshall see, history points to other American insti-tutions as being much more important to thenation’s harmony, freedom, and prosperity than government-run schooling. Overall, it hasbeen the nation’s commitment to limited gov-ernment and individual liberty—not publicschools’ ability to indoctrinate children intosome civic religion, or to mold them into “prop-er” Americans—that has been the key to America’s success.This paper reexamines the accepted story about public schooling’s role in creating unity and upholding democracy. First, it documentsoutbreaks over the past academic year of themost divisive kinds of public school conflicts—those pitting people’s deeply held valuesagainst each other—and makes clear that suchcombat is inevitable when everyone is requiredto pay for an official school system that only the most politically powerful control. Next, itexamines the historical record of Americaneducation and finds that conflict and divisionhave long been part of public schooling.Finally, the report identifies the true founda-tions of the nation’s unity and success, andexplains why the only system of education thatcan effectively support a free society is one thatis itself grounded in freedom.
The Balkanized Year,2005–06
Decisions debated literally every day inpublic schools thrust Americans into politi-cal conflict, whether over district budgets,dress codes, the amount of time childrenspend in art classes, or countless other mat-ters. To see this, most people need do littlemore than read about school board meetingsin their local newspapers.
But althoughschools and districts may confront their own,specific issues, the conflicts those issues pro-duce are all driven by the same dynamic: Alltaxpayers must support the public schools,but only those able to summon sufficientpolitical power can determine what theschools will teach and how they’ll be run.
The nation’scommitmentto limitedgovernment andindividualliberty—notpublic schools’ability toindoctrinatechildren—hasbeen the key toAmerica’s success.