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Commentary:On the Fairness Of a State-School Monopoly

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Joseph L. Conn's Commentary, "Making Private Schools 'More Equal"' (Education Week, Nov. 16, 1983), makes clear the intellectual bankruptcy and lack of historical perspective of Americans United for Separation of Church and State. Mr. Conn is managing editor of the group's Church and State magazine.

Mr. Conn uses the term "unfair" in his essay on the federal tuition tax-credit plan that was then being considered by the Senate. He claims that such a tax-credit program "will effectively require all Americans to subsidize the religious-education programs of a few religious faiths."

It is hard to criticize Mr. Conn's statement directly, not because his analysis is persuasive, but rather because of the many hidden assumptions in his piece. Here are a few of the questions I would like to ask him:

1. Is it fair for those Americans who believe in freedom of conscience and freedom of teaching and learning to be forced to sup-port a monopoly system of government schools that demands so much from them in taxes that only the affluent and those with access to subsidized private schools can opt out of this state monopoly? In other words, can a system of government schools be considered fair when, in the words of Stephen Arons, it "provides free choice for the rich and compulsory socialization for everyone else"?

2. Is it fair for the political majority (or for the combination of bureaucrats, professional educators, and textbook publishers--that is, those who really control the curriculum of government schools) to use the power of the state to force their values and beliefs on unwilling minorities? No less a thinker than John Stuart Mill certainly did not think so. In his classic defense of freedom--On Liberty--he argues that such an arrangement inevitably will lead to a "despotism over the mind." His argument has been quoted with great frequency, but somehow groups like Americans United for Separation of Church and State never seem to take Mill's argument seriously. They certainly have not countered it successfully.

3. Is it fair for the state to give an increasing advantage to secular and humanistic values in government schools and increasingly to place traditional Judeo-Christian values at a state-sponsored disadvantage? In their analysis of movements such as Values Clarification, the infamous macos ["Man, A Course of Study"] curriculum, and much of sex education, first-rate scholars of national stature have made a persuasive case that this is what is happening. But groups such as Americans United have not successfully refuted these arguments. By and large, they have simply ignored them.

4. Is it fair for educators to perpetuate the myth that a religiously neutral education is possible in government schools, when strong arguments to the contrary have never been successfully countered? Well over a hundred years ago, the Roman Catholic Bishop John Hughes demonstrated the shallowness of this assumption, and countless scholars have added weight to his arguments in the intervening decades, especially over the past 10 years. To be sure, the U.S. Supreme Court also shares this view, but I am convinced that if the Court remains open to careful philosophical and theological analysis, it will eventually have to abandon this philosophically precarious position.

I have already referred to scholarly articles that establish the bias of "Values Clarification" and much of sex education, and it is one of the most damning indictments of the government-school establishment that this literature has been so largely ignored by its teachers, professors, and bureaucrats. But even if such offensive elements were removed from the curriculum, the problem, as Bishop Hughes so clearly demonstrated, would still remain, for every school, every curriculum is either a purely accidental and random affair or else it is based on fundamental conceptions of the nature of human beings, of society, and of the good life. To claim that these assumptions are not in a fundamental sense "religious" is simply to toy with words. And even if one thought of them as only "philosophical," they are still areas that should not be subject to the heavy hand of government. That, I take it, is what the First Amendment is really all about.

5. Is it fair to berate Roman Catholic educators who want tax breaks for parents who send children to their schools in light of the fact that it was virulent, nativist, anti-Catholic sentiment that originally led to the termination of public support for religious schools? Mr. Conn would do well to review his history. The fact is that anti-Catholic Protestant and Enlightenment educators persuaded Americans that papist immigrants would corrupt the purity of the Protestant Christian religion and might even destroy the republic itself. Historically, the origins of the government-school movement in America were far more tied up in hostility toward foreigners and suspicion of genuine pluralism than most Americans, including educators, today realize.

These are just a few of the questions that could be addressed to Mr. Conn. The fact is that the school-funding debate that is taking place in America today is a far more complex and serious debate than Mr. Conn seems to realize. The fundamental questions are not about giving subsidies to religious schools. Rather, they concern the initial unfairness of cutting off support to religious schools in the first place. They have to do with the philosophical implausibility of the assumption that a religiously neutral system of schools is either theoretically or practically possible. They relate to the question of whether freedom to teach and learn can ever exist in a fundamental sense and over a long period of time in government-monopoly schools. They concern the issue of whether parents or the state should have ultimate authority over the moral and religious education of children. These are the issues that must be debated.

The debate will not be easy, for what is at stake is not just differences that can be resolved through small accommodations and slight adjustments. We are dealing with basic paradigm conflict, with fundamentally different conceptions of the role of the state, the nature of religion, and the authority of parents to direct the education of their children. The operative assumptions held by different parties to the dispute are so different that communication becomes extremely difficult--but, one hopes, not impossible.


Richard A. Baer Jr. teaches in the Department of Natural Resources and is a member of the Graduate Field of Education at Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y.

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