Debate over the role of religion in the public square seems to be developing into a Christmas tradition rivaling caroling and tree trimming. Each year, newspapers report about communities divided over whether and how to provide a public setting for symbols of religious holidays. Even Congress has gotten involved in the battle this year — taking time from matters of national security — to debate what to call the decorated tree on the West Lawn of the U.S. Capitol.
But one of the most common battlegrounds in the “Christmas wars” are our nation’s public schools.
Public school teachers spend the weeks between Thanksgiving and Christmas tiptoeing the line between the religious and the secular—making difficult choices about whether and how to include symbols of the holidays in instruction. The art teacher must decide whether to outlaw Santa Claus. The music teacher must choose whether to include Christmas and Chanukah songs — or to stick to a “winter-themed” play-list—at the annual “holiday” gathering.
And whatever these teachers decide, someone is bound to be unhappy. In recent years, civil libertarian groups have sued public schools that use religious-themed symbols in holiday settings. In response, pro-Christmas legal groups have threatened to sue public schools that discriminate against religion by banning any mention of Christmas in the classroom.
This annual legal tug-of-war is just one battle in the cultural war over the policies and curricula of the nation’s public school systems. Since the famous Scopes Trial of 1925, communities and judges have grappled with the question of how schools should address the evolution debate — and more broadly, the role of religion — in public school classrooms.
Education involves all kinds of values issues on which people of good will can — and do — disagree. But public school policymaking too often forces a winner-take-all resolution of such issues. That means that controversial cultural decisions always result in someone being disenfranchised.
It’s not surprising, then, to see the endurance of this culture war and the passions that it arouses — America’s public school monopoly doesn’t allow parents to decide where their children go to school and what they are taught (unless they can afford to pay a second time, on top of their taxes, for a school outside the system). When parents can’t choose schools that reflect their own personal beliefs, these divisive issues must be settled in the public sphere: in state legislatures, at school board meetings, and, all too often, in the courtroom.
This kind of trench warfare, carrying on year after year, detracts from students’ education and does nothing for community civility. There is a strategy, however, that could lead to an armistice in the battles over what’s taught in the classroom: school choice. Programs that allow parents to decide where their children attend school would let individuals move their children to schools with policies they support, removing the need for one-size-fits all solutions.
School choice would allow parents to put their children in classroom settings that reflect their values or remove their children from schools that do not. Whether it’s the debate over Christmas, sex education, or American history, school choice would let every parent be the final judge on the issues that matter most to them.
Across the nation, school choice programs like vouchers, tax credits, and charter schools are spreading and expanding. Most school choice programs have been designed to assist children who are poorly served by the public school system, such as those from low-income families or who need special education.
For example, low-income families in Milwaukee have used vouchers to send their children to private schools for more than a decade. This fall, more than 15,000 children participated. Research shows that these students have higher graduation rates than their public-school peers. Similar programs that help low-income children now exist in Florida, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Washington, D.C. As well, Florida and Utah now have programs that allow parents of children with special needs to choose public or private schools.
But the debate over values issues in public schools shows how all families — and our society as a whole — would benefit if parents were allowed to choose their children’s schools.
In 2005, five new school choice programs were expanded or created, which means that more than 100,000 children will participate in school choice programs in 2006. Dozens of states will likely consider new school choice initiatives during the upcoming legislative year, meaning that even more children could benefit from school choice next fall.
So a few more children will be spared from the crossfire of the culture wars this time next year. For them and their families, neighbors, and communities, that will be a welcome gift.