Sunday, October 28, 2007

Don't make public schools a state church

Americans would revolt if the government forced them to join a state-established church. They guard too fiercely their liberty of conscience, guaranteed by the First Amendment. Yet when some parents choose not to submit their children to the government-operated school system - whose curriculum and culture embody beliefs and values with which they disagree - they still must pay taxes to support the system. Even then, they often face opposition.

We contend that the conduct of schooling in the United States should be determined by the rights of conscience of parents, in accord with the democratic nature of our society and our confessional pluralism. Parents who choose not to send their children to public schools should not be subject to harassment. Nor should they be forced to support the state system as well as their preferred educational arrangement.

Contrary to popular belief, the US has never had one universally accepted system of public education. American history is full of dissenters who acted on conscience - and faced opposition for it. In the mid-19th century, Americans created what was then called the "common school." Allegedly free of the evils of sectarian educational institutions, the common school, supported by mandatory taxation, was touted as the bastion of republicanism, guarantor of liberty, and avenue of equal opportunity for all Americans. Advocates claimed it would abolish crime and poverty, and establish morality on a universal scale.

As was the case with prior government-established ecclesiastical institutions in Europe and early America, for example, Congregationalism in Connecticut and Anglicanism in Virginia, the "inclusive" common school was not common to all. Like its predecessors, it bred dissent. The leading educational dissenters in the 19th century were Roman Catholics. Their religious conscience clashed with the "nonsectarianism" of the common school, which in reality was a form of Unitarian pan-Protestantism. At considerable sacrifice, and despite their poverty, Catholics established their own schools and were confronted by opposition that sometimes turned violent.

As the 19th century progressed, others, most notably German Lutherans, joined Catholics in their conscience-based dissent from state-sanctioned educational orthodoxy. As had been the case with the established churches, those advocating the state system of education attempted to quell the "uprising" by regulating the dissenting schools.

In the 1960s, new groups joined the ranks of dissenters. A minority of evangelical Protestants were outraged by Supreme Court declarations that state-sanctioned prayer and devotional Bible reading violated the "no establishment" clause of the First Amendment. They felt discouraged by what they perceived as the establishment of secularism as the de facto religion of government-sponsored education. Consequently, they created Christian day schools to educate their children according to the dictates of conscience. Like Catholic and Lutheran dissenters, these schools, and some of their leaders, were harried at times by the state.

Most recently, a small but rapidly growing number of parents, a majority of whom are conservative Christians, have chosen to educate their children at home. Holding to the proposition that parents have the primary right to direct the education of their offspring, a right affirmed by the Supreme Court several times since the landmark Pierce v. Society of Sisters decision of 1925, they are the most radical dissenters yet. Like earlier dissenters, most home-schooling families believe the public school system transmits an orthodoxy alien to their belief system. As a matter of conscience, they feel bound to provide an education congruent with their worldview. And like other dissenters from earlier state churches and the current functional equivalent, the public school system, these parents have had to pay taxes to support a government-privileged institution as well as the costs of the education they prefer, been occasionally harassed, and sometimes hauled into court.

Any government establishment, ecclesiastical or educational, breeds dissent. Unfortunately, dissenters have often been subjected to legal prosecution, unjust financial burdens, and sometimes outright persecution. Such actions have often been justified as necessary for the "common good," while the "unorthodox" have been demonized as "divisive" or, in the case of 19th-century Catholic schools, "un-American." Today, home-schoolers are sometimes accused of being "selfish" or "undemocratic."

For those wanting a secular education for their children, as it currently exists in public schools, that is their choice and their right. Parents desiring a different kind of education should not have to pay twice as the price of liberty of conscience. The role of government in a democracy should be to see that the public is educated, not to mandate, directly or indirectly through financial policies, one particular form of education. When the government privileges a specific set of propositions of knowledge and dispositions of value and belief, it has established the educational equivalent of a state church. Such an arrangement is just as incompatible with liberty of conscience, as were the established churches of America's early history.


This poor sod thinks the world owes him a living

His "ideals" require him to sponge off others rather than doing something useful. A good Leftist, in other words

I am 24, live with my parents, can't find work and am floundering in a sea of debt five figures high. I think of myself as ambitious, independent and hardworking. Now I'm dependent, unemployed and sleeping under the same Super Mario ceiling fan that I did when I was 7. How did this happen? I did what every upstanding citizen is supposed to do. I went to college. I took out loans so I could enroll at Alfred University, a pricey private school. The next year, I transferred to the more finance-friendly University at Buffalo, where I could commute from home and push carts part-time at Home Depot.

I related my forthcoming debt to puberty or a midlife crisis - each an unavoidable nuisance; tickets required upon admission to the next stage of adulthood. But as interest rates climbed and the cost of tuition, books and daily living mounted to galactic proportions, I realized this was more than some paltry inconvenience. Upon graduating, I was helplessly launched headfirst into the "real world," equipped with a degree in history and $32,000 in student loans. Before ricocheting back home, I would learn two important lessons: 1) There are no well-paying - let alone paying - jobs for history majors. 2) The real world is really tough.

Desperate times called for desperate measures, and I had no intention of living in a society that was as unfair as this one. To seek a haven devoid of the ruthless 9-to-5 ebb and flow of contemporary America, I moved to Alaska. As a liberal arts major, I dreamed of making a profound difference in people's lives. Instead, for a year, I lived in Coldfoot, a town north of the Arctic Circle that resembles a Soviet Gulag camp. My job as a tour guide for visitors temporarily alleviated my money woes because it provided room and board, but when the season ended and I moved back home, I was again confronted with the grim realities of debt.

Desperate, I browsed through insurance and bank job descriptions. I had hit an all-time low. Could I surrender my soul for health coverage and a steady income? Could I sacrifice my ideals by falling into line? Suddenly, living at home didn't seem nearly as degrading as selling out. But sadly, other graduates don't have any choice but to work for temp agencies and retail stores to eke by.

That's the tragedy of student debt: it doesn't just limit what we do, but who we become. Forget volunteering. Forget traveling. Forget trying to improve your country, or yourself. You've got bills to pay, young man. Unfortunately, the recent passage of the College Cost Reduction and Access Act doesn't portend that times are a-changin'. The act reduces interest rates on Stafford Loans and increases Pell Grant awards. Whoopty-do.

There's no question that this is a step forward. But we're still talking pennies and nickels when we need to completely revolutionize the government's role in financing post-secondary education. College is a wonderful experience and something every young citizen should pursue. But without help, a college education is becoming an unaffordable rite of passage and a privilege of the affluent.

My loan payments can't wait much longer, and soon I must leave home to find work that doesn't compromise my integrity. Although I sometimes wonder what it would be like if I had declared as an accounting major and got a cushy job punching numbers somewhere, I'll take my history major, my debt and my mom's cooking any day of the week.


No comments: