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Pluralism and Equality Need Educational Freedom

Neal McCluskey

Americans recoil at “discrimination.” The word connotes
exclusion for not just superficial, but also hateful reasons, which
Americans experienced for decades in the form of racial segregation
– often government-mandated – from schools to lunch
counters. This shameful history is no doubt why Secretary of
Education Betsy DeVos set off a firestorm recently when she refused
to say that she would prohibit potential federal vouchers from
going to private schools that don’t accept all comers.

But we should not let our immediate, understandable feelings
keep us from asking: Might there be acceptable, perhaps even good,
reasons that schools would not work with some people?

There may be. Pluralism, academic achievement, and authentic,
sustainable integration are all important considerations.

First pluralism. Ours is a nation of greatly diverse people –
myriad religions, ethnicities, languages, cultures – and we must
allow unique communities to educate their children in ways that the
political majority, which controls public schools, might not
select, and do so without having to sacrifice their education tax
dollars. We must enable people to choose schools that share their
values, or cultures, or views of history, on a level playing field.
If we do not, we doom them to unequal status under the law, and
even risk their withering away in a generation or two.

We should not let our
revulsion for malevolent discrimination snuff out the ability of
the country’s countless, cherished communities to live on by
teaching their children as they see fit.

Religion is the most obvious, widespread sticking point. By law,
public schools cannot inculcate religious values. But there are
millions of people who believe that religion is inseparable from
education; that all life and learning is centered on God.

For more than a century public schools were de facto Protestant
institutions for this reason, but that marginalized atheists, Roman
Catholics, and many others. Schools also must take sides on issues
with inescapable religious implications, such as evolution and sex
education. These are huge reasons that millions of people enroll
their children in
schools – Southern Baptists have even debated an

“exodus” from public schools
– but they must sacrifice their
tax dollars to do so.

Of course, it is not just religious communities that are
handicapped and rendered unequal under public schooling. Racial,
ethnic, and linguistic minorities often are, too. For instance, in
Tucson, Ariz., a battle has raged for years over classes for
Mexican-American students that focus on the community’s unique
history and culture. They were eventually outlawed for advocating,
among other things, “ethnic solidarity,” which may just be another
way of saying, “trying to sustain their community.”

It now seems clear that equality and pluralism necessitate that
communities be able to offer schooling on an equal footing with
public schools. But the question remains: Does this also require
that private schools be able to exclude some students?

For a school to truly stand for things central to the community
it serves, those who enter the community must share those values.
For instance, being forced to accept a large influx of families
hostile to a community’s views on, say, the role of
Mexican-Americans in the United States, or marriage, would threaten
the demise of such a school.

It could also smother a school academically. As sociologist
James Coleman famously surmised after studying Roman Catholic
schools, the key to their success was their high level of social
capital; essentially, their internal cohesion from administrators,
teachers, and families all voluntarily accepting the same norms and
values. That enabled them to teach clear, rigorous curricula, and
uphold well-delineated norms of behavior.

There is one last consideration when it comes to communities
deciding whom they will and will not accept: freedom of

While prohibiting schools from turning some families away is
utterly understandable given our history, it may be
counterproductive, essentially creating unsustainable tolerance
theater. As social psychologist
Patricia Devine has noted
, coercing prejudiced people to act in
unprejudiced ways can fuel “anger and resentment, and sadly, this
anger fuels their prejudice and their tendency to show a backlash
against the pressure.”

Of course, we should not stand idly by while people cruelly
discriminate. We should expose, criticize, and shun bigots. But we
should not let our revulsion for malevolent discrimination snuff
out the ability of the country’s countless, cherished communities
to live on by teaching their children as they see fit.

Neal McCluskey (@NealMcCluskey) is a contributor to the Washington Examiner’s Beltway Confidential blog. He is the director of the Cato Institute’s Center for Educational Freedom and maintains Cato’s Public Schooling Battle Map.