A Matter of Choice

Dr. Malcolm Cross

Controversies over what should be taught in our public schools, as well as what books should be available to students in school libraries, continue unabated.  One approach to dealing with them may be to promote government-funded school choice.

Currently in the news are controversies over whether students should be exposed to Critical Race Theory, or differing gender identities and sexual orientations, or even whether they should have access to library books discussing these and other controversial issues.  Questions raised include, but aren’t necessarily limited to:

  • What is the goal of Critical Race Theory—to promote a more honest and thorough understanding of the roles of slavery and racism in persecuting people of color, especially Blacks–or to make all White students feel irredeemably guilty and incurably racist for the sins of their ancestors? (Supporters of CRT say it’s not currently taught and there are no plans to do so anywhere anyway.)
  • What role should discussions of homosexuality, transgenderism, etc. have in the curricula of students in kindergarten and the first 3 grades? (Supporters of “Don’t Say Gay” bills say k-3 students need not be exposed to such discussions.)

And these controversies are but a continuation of decades-old conflicts concerning the content of public school curricula:

  • To what extent should high school biology courses stress Darwin’s Theory of Evolution?  Should they include discussion of alternative theories which assign a greater role in our development to God?
  • Did the United States emerge from a complex of economic and political forces—the desire for more goods from Asia, the search for more efficient ways to develop trade with the Far East, the race to discover colonies whose natural resources and agricultural potentials could be developed, the desire for greater freedom for 13 of England’s North American colonies, etc., etc.—or did God play a role in America’s creation, presumably to help spread the Christian faith?
  • What should be included in English curricula:  Shakespeare? Hemingway? Steinbeck?  Hawthorne?  Given that these are all Dead White Males, shouldn’t the curriculum include the works of women?  Of people of color?  Of contemporary writers?
  • How should mathematics be taught?  Should allowances be made for the possibility that different races process math in different ways?  (As I once noted in an earlier article, some reformers argue that while 2+2=4 is true for people of all races, requiring students to show their work in mathematical problem solving somehow puts white students at a competitive advantage over students of color, who should therefore be afforded alternative means to show their mathematical reasoning.)

The fact that these questions are being raised at all, regardless of what the “correct” answers may be, is healthy.  Parents should take an active interest in what their children are being taught, and those who raise the above questions, and others as well, are doing exactly that.  And doing so is not a form of domestic terrorism justifying an FBI investigation (although all parties to these controversies should keep their conduct legal and nonviolent on pain of prosecution by local authorities).  But so far most discussion has assumed these decisions should be made by the local governing boards of public school systems.  Insufficient attention has been paid to the possible expansion of school choice opportunities as a possible means of easing tensions.

In a school choice system, parents would still be required to have their children educated, but not necessarily in their local public schools.  Rather, parents could send their children to private schools, parochial schools, or charter schools, or even homeschool them.  But while parents do, in theory, have the right to choose how their children are to be educated already, they may lack the money to actually do so in practice—hence the need for government financial assistance, usually in the form of vouchers.

In a voucher system, governments or private foundations award vouchers to parents to be used to help finance their children’s education if they choose not to send their children to the public (i. e., government) schools run by the school districts in which they live.  The idea was developed by economists such as Nobel laureate Milton Friedman, who argued that if public school systems maintain monopolies the quality of public education will suffer, but if public schools must compete with private or parochial schools, they’ll upgrade the quality of education they provide to retain their students and possibly attract more students—and more state funding.  Voucher programs are especially liked by conservative Christian parents who question the values taught in public schools, as well as by poor Whites and people of color who want better educational opportunities for their students.  One of the greatest strengths of voucher programs is that by supplying financial assistance to those dissatisfied with their public schools, whether because of the values the dissatisfied parents think are being taught there or simply because they think the schools are doing a poor job educating their children, dissatisfied parents have more freedom to search for what they consider to be better options for their children.

But voucher programs have enemies as well.  They’re especially disliked by teachers unions, as well as by associations of school boards and public school administrators.  The opponents of vouchers fear that if more parents send heir children to alternative schools, the public schools will get less public support and public funds.  It must be noted that residents of affluent neighborhoods may dislike school choice programs too.  They may be satisfied with their public schools as hey are, and may be concerned over who else might choose to enroll in them if they have the financial aid to do so.

So school choice programs are by no means free of controversy.  But by allowing more parents to have more freedom to send their children to schools other than their established public schools, school choice programs can act as “safety valves” which allow dissatisfied parents to search for schools more to their liking rather than continuously fight with the public school authorities.  Besides, by giving more parents more freedom to guide the education of their children, they bring America closer to the ideal of being “The Land of the Free.”

Malcolm L. Cross has lived in Stephenville and taught politics and government at Tarleton since 1987. His political and civic activities include service on the Stephenville City Council (2000-2014) and on the Erath County Republican Executive Committee (1990 to the present).  He was Mayor Pro Tem of Stephenville from 2008 to 2014.  He is a member of St. Luke’s Episcopal Church and the Stephenville Rotary Club, and does volunteer work for the Boy Scouts of America. Views expressed in this column are his and do not reflect those of The Flash as a whole.

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