You might think, as a free speech activist and ACLU honoree, I should be squealing with glee at the struggles of Take Back Our Schools (TBOS), a Colorado Springs parents’ organization that wants certain books removed from school libraries in multiple Springs school districts.
The standard liberal reply would be something like crying censorship, unconstitutionality, ridiculing prudish parents who don’t know what literature is, and who knows what else. It’d be easy to go there. But I can’t.
I can’t go there because there’s a deeper problem. The property tax dollars of TBOS members go directly to the school districts where they live. Everyone in that district has two basic choices: Shut up and pay, or move. Since the cost of moving is normally very high, they pay.
But they don’t necessarily shut up. And why should they? Why is it OK for their tax money to fund schools whose administration, staff and school board majority don’t share their values? Fighting a political battle may be their only realistic option to make their voices heard in their child’s education.
This isn’t anyone’s fault. The problem is the system. If you want to have political battles over books, religion, race, math, or any controversial topic, you couldn’t pick a better system to throw gasoline onto the fire.
I know this because I’m a veteran of the K-12 math wars. As a professor who teaches cryptography to college students, I’m passionate about mathematics. Many years ago, I worked with parents and spoke at local school board meetings to try and get fuzzy math out of the curriculum. Failing that, I tried to help parents who wanted mathematical rigor get that option for their children. I came out unbowed, but definitely bloodied.
My point is sending property tax money directly to school districts is in theory is supposed to make us all sing kumbaya. In practice, we just sing before going into battle. Here are some Colorado examples from last year alone:
1) Woodland Park police had to be called into an open school board meeting on whether or not to adopt a particular American history program.
2) A Denver public school parent, after seeing a gay pride flag in his child’s school, sought permission to hang a “straight pride” flag next to it. His request was denied, so he sued the district. The lawsuit is still pending.
3) On the Western Slope, a senior at Grand Valley High was told she could not wear a graduation sash honoring her Mexican American heritage. Her request was denied, based on school policy. She is suing the district on First Amendment grounds.
These are just a few of literally thousands of political battles being waged across America because of our Neanderthal system of education funding. (I apologize, that’s offensive to Neanderthals).
Does anyone seriously believe these kinds of problems would happen if we had school vouchers? Or Education Savings Accounts? Or Education Tax Credits? Pretty much anything where the money goes to parents instead of school districts will make these battles vanish in a puff of smoke.
No system is perfect. Some parents will use their education dollars to teach their children values I disagree with. I might venture to say those parents are wrong. I might try to persuade them otherwise. But that’s as far as I can legitimately go. In the absence of evidence to the contrary, a free society must assume parents act in the best interests of their children and give them maximum freedom to do so.
In short, I’m tired of the education wars. Give peace a chance.
Barry Fagin is Senior Fellow in Technology Policy at the Independence Institute in Denver, and a National ACLU Civil Liberties Award winner. His views are his alone. Readers can contact him at email@example.com.
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