Public schools: Why we don’t fight more

Sunday, February 4, 2007

Americans aren’t shy about invoking their First Amendment rights — especially over issues of religion and values in public schools.

Over one 10-day period in January, I heard from Wiccans in North Carolina upset about school Internet filters filtering out Wicca, a student in Florida challenging a school speech code, a teacher in Utah worried about school censorship of a religious T-shirt, and a California parent in California concerned about the accuracy of religious material used to teach Thanksgiving.

It’s no surprise that public schools are the arena of choice for Americans who want to be heard. After all, public schools are seen by many as a microcosm of our public square, an arena where we debate and define who we are as a people.

But if we fight so much, are public schools bad or good for the nation? Do they divide us into warring factions — or are they places where we learn to address our deep differences?

That was the provocative question debated Jan. 23 at the Cato Institute, a libertarian think tank based in Washington, D.C. Neal McCluskey, a policy analyst at Cato, summarized the findings of his paper, “Why we fight: How public schools cause social conflict” — and I was asked to respond.

As evidence of how public schools cause conflict, McCluskey’s paper points to 150 fights over religion and values in the 2005-2006 school year alone. “Throughout American history,” he argues, “public schooling has produced political disputes, animosity, and sometimes even bloodshed between diverse people.” According to McCluskey, such fights are inevitable when people are required to support “state-run schools,” but only those with the most political power control them.

His solution? “To end the fighting caused by state-run schooling, we should transform our system from one in which government establishes and controls schools, to one in which individual parents are empowered to select schools that share their moral values and educational goals for their children.”

In response: I don’t see these conflicts as an indictment of public education. Instead, I view them as a reflection of our larger culture wars. Because the First Amendment applies to public schools (as it does not to private and religious schools), parents, students and others often see school clashes as a testing ground for asserting First Amendment rights.

Although I’m not happy about the number of fights over religion and values in public schools (and would like to see more schools move from battleground to common ground), I also believe that some degree of conflict and debate is vital to democracy.

What McCluskey describes as “forcing people of disparate backgrounds and beliefs into political combat,” I characterize as requiring American citizens to engage one another across our differences – and, where possible, find a common vision of the common good.

Of course, if McCluskey is right — and these clashes over religion and values are finally “insoluble,” serving only to divide us — then perhaps we should indeed abandon our commitment to universal public education and retreat into our separate educational corners.

But as a veteran of culture-war conflicts in public schools, I would argue that over the past two decades Americans have found considerable common ground on how to deal with religion and values in public schools.

Twenty years ago, many public schools came close to being religion-free zones, owing in large part to overreaction to Supreme Court decisions prohibiting state-sponsored religious practices. Today, however, state standards and textbooks include study about religion, student religious clubs meet in hundreds of high schools, and the sight of students praying during their free time is commonplace in many schools.

Thanks to changes in the law and First Amendment agreements supported by many religious and educational groups, there is more student religious expression (and religion in the curriculum) in public schools today than at any time since the early history of public education. But this time around, religion is coming in through the First Amendment door.

On the values front, there has also been much progress. Character education, a commitment to model and teach core moral values throughout the school culture, is also growing rapidly in school districts across the nation.

Although some public schools have a distance to go in reaching common ground on religion and values, public education is not — as McCluskey suggests — “doomed to eternal acrimony.” On the contrary, it is not only possible to negotiate our deep differences and find agreement, it is good for the nation that we do so.

Yes, there are many “bad stories” out there (often fueled by advocacy groups looking for a fight). But the good stories far outweigh the bad. And the success of the many public schools where people have found common ground on religion and values convinces me that public education has an essential role to play as we continue to build one nation out of many cultures and faiths in 21st century America.

Public schools aren’t “why we fight” — they are “why we don’t fight more.”

Charles C. Haynes is senior scholar at the First Amendment Center, 1101 Wilson Blvd., Arlington, Va. 22209. E-mail:

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