Accounting tricks, democracy and truth, or the Plessification of America

Cato's gang continue to push vouchers, I mean "education tax credits," as a way towards ending public education. We will note only in passing that "education tax credits" are a shell game, an accounting trick meant only to pretend we aren't giving sectarian schools big bags of taxpayer money:

Education tax credits allow every taxpayer to support the kind of education they want to and force no one to pay for education to which they object. Tax credits create a public education system where schools are accountable to the parents who choose them and the people who pay for them . . . not through a corrupt political process beholden to Big Ed, but directly accountable to the people themselves.

That is true oversight. That is a democratic system of education.

This all begs the question of whether education ought to be democratic in this sense. Should educational democracy be promoted by treating various beliefs as separate but equal, and creating a Balkanized education system in which students – or rather, parents – are not challenged? Or should education be a process of discovery, in which professionals and experts teach children to exercise their own judgment and present them with novel ideas, ideas that may be wrong and that may challenge their prior beliefs? Should the children be protected from these ideas a priori, or should they be compelled to contend with the current state of knowledge?

Alas and alack, this is not a purely academic question. A part-time teacher in Oregon was recently fired over precisely this set of questions. The teacher decided to use biology classes to wage his own private culture war:

During his eight days as a part-time high school biology teacher, Kris Helphinstine included Biblical references in material he provided to students and gave a PowerPoint presentation that made links between evolution, Nazi Germany and Planned Parenthood.

That was enough for the Sisters School Board, which fired the teacher Monday night for deviating from the curriculum

Like many others, I think the Bible and other religious texts have a place in schools. I wish there were comparative religion courses, or philosophy classes that included theology as part of the curriculum. And in such a class, it would be relevant to use the Bible as source material, and to debate the philosophical implications of scientific ideas. In a history class, it would be relevant to discuss how ideas were used and abused, understood and misunderstood by various major historical figures. In a biology class, not so much.

I suppose Cato's crew would argue that the students could have exercised their democratic right and walked out of class, or that parents could have hired tutors to correct the bogus crap Mr. Helphinstine was feeding them. On the other hand, a decent chunk of the parents may have agreed with Helphinstine, so why should their (democratically elected!) school board have fired him?

The problem was that he was lying to the students. Not just about the historical roots of Nazism, but about something much more fundamental. He was using a science class to lie about what science is. As I've said before, "Science is a process, refined through historical practice, which tests claims against evidence, rejecting those claims which make bad predictions, conditionally accepting those which make good, ideally unexpected, predictions and ignoring those which make no prediction," as well as the knowledge accumulated through that process.

What Helphinstine, and I imagine quite a few of the schools that would benefit from Cato's voucher plan, present as science is closer to the definition provided by Vox Day's commenter "the organized attempt to disprove the existence of God so we can do whatever we want without feeling bad about it." In this conception, science is about philosophy, theology, morality and ethics. While those are excellent topics for discussion, they are not science. Indeed, science can say little if anything about those topics.

When you listen closely to the anti-evolutionists, this view of science as moral philosophy consistently emerges as a central objection. Thus, they have no objection to teaching that the roughly 12,000 species of ants come from a single "baramin," while humans must belong to their very own special category. That is a moral objection, not a scientific one. The genus Homo is more similar to the genus Pan than ants within some single genera in terms of morphology or molecules – the parts science can measure. The moral part is what they think separates us, and science can't measure that.

If a majority of Americans, or a majority in a single community, believes that science is moral philosophy, not a limited epistemological tool, should they be allowed to teach science-as-moral-philosophy to their children?

I think not. That argument would allow misunderstanding and untruth to be promoted indefinitely, to reinforce itself in a way that limits children. The nature of science is not decided democratically, nor is scientific knowledge put to a vote. Teaching science as if it were subject to popular whims is lying.

Behind that lie about science is a bigger lie: that all beliefs are equal, and that beliefs deserve protection to ensure their equality. The Supreme Court advanced a similar argument in Plessy v. Ferguson, the case which upheld segregation (and which Brown v. Board of Education overturned). The Court rejected integration of races in 1896, saying that it was doomed to fail:

The argument also assumes that social prejudices may be overcome by legislation, and that equal rights cannot be secured to the negro except by an enforced commingling of the two races. We cannot accept this proposition. If the two races are to meet upon terms of social equality, it must be the result of natural affinities, a mutual appreciation of each other's merits, and a voluntary consent of individuals.

I think it's clear that this is also the argument made by Cato – that people with different ideas cannot commingle, cannot meet upon terms of social equality except as a result of natural affinities and voluntary consent, that "Forcing all parents to educate their children in the same way is a recipe for irresolvable value conflicts and civic strife."

The Brown Court rejected this argument in explicit terms:

We conclude that in the field of public education the doctrine of "separate but equal" has no place. Separate educational facilities are inherently unequal.

The issue at hand there was race, and race is clearly a separate matter from ideology or creed. The Brown Court posed the question: "Does segregation of children in public schools solely on the basis of race, even though the physical facilities and other 'tangible' factors may be equal, deprive the children of the minority group of equal educational opportunities? We believe that it does." Those intangible factors are no less relevant to matters of religion or ideology. The Court based its ruling on earlier decisions which placed great importance on "those qualities which are incapable of objective measurement but which make for greatness in a … school." Those qualities include the students' "ability to study, to engage in discussions and exchange views with other students, and, in general, to learn his profession."

Intellectual integration is the foundation of education, and indeed of society. I agree with j.d. that it is worrisome to see the marketplace of ideas becoming Balkanized (though I'd blame Fox for that phenomenon, not people who refuse to treat it as a news source). A voucherized school system would lead to one of two outcomes – a system with a school that teaches science, history and literature roughly the way public schools do today (which might even be the Catholic school!) and a wacko religious school that pretends Jefferson was an evangelical Christian and that there is a field of science known as "Darwinism." Both schools would be weaker than the intellectually integrated public schools are today, because the range of experiences students would encounter would be more limited.

Cato's Adam Schaeffer would point to cases like Helphinstine's and argue that "Forcing all parents to educate their children in the same way is a recipe for irresolvable value conflicts and civic strife." But such value conflicts exist. Only acknowledging that fact and attempting to engage our differences can we possibly prevent civic strife, or determine if those conflicts truly are irresolvable. In each parent's household, the children will learn different values and will be taught to handle what they learn in school in different ways. Some parents will give their kids creationist books to counteract their biology classes, others will take them to the zoo and the library to explore the issue in more detail. Some parents might even learn something from their children.

When the children go to school the next day, they will learn from each other, and from the teacher. That's democracy, and that's a marketplace of ideas. Democracy thrives on such gathering and exchange, and fails when we treat people separately. It fails also when we enact protections for ideas, treating ideas as if they were all equal. Ideas must be challenged and evidence must be debated. That is how we separate good ideas from bad, not by segregation of believers, but by public encounters and interaction. It is in precisely this way that public schools – publicly funded, accessible to all and regulated by elected leaders – promote democracy, and it is why private schools funded by tax payer dollars would undermine it.


More like this

Josh, while I cannot disagree with any of the points you make, I take a slightly different lesson from the continuing voucher controversy. This is merely that voucher advocates, particularly those of a religious stripe, want all the benefits of public funding, without any of the responsibility and restrictions that comes with it. I guess this stance would make more sense in a mind which rejects the establishment clause (with respect to religion) from the get-go.

My son goes to a charter school. Charter schools in Michigan are fully funded by the state. They have to meet state standards. The kids take MEAP tests, etc.

My wife signed him up. She was looking for something better than general public education. And, in my opinion, we got it. Every kid in this school has two advantages over kids in the regular public schools. First, they have at least one parent who is capable of filling out the application forms. Second, they have at least one parent who actually filled out the forms. Yeah. Actually bothered to do it.

When my son's teacher sends a note home (or calls), we respond instantly. What's up? What can we do to improve it? But, i hear of public school teachers, for example, making 30 phone calls to parents, and not getting a single response.

Apparently, the Lutherans and some others, do a very good job of educating kids. I wouldn't have a problem with vouchers for an organization that actually gets results.

Charter schools are a different beast than voucherized private schools. They are still subject to state regulations and supervision, and the charter can be revoked.

The point you make about parental commitment is vital. Advocates of vouchers will point to superior performance at a charter school or private schools without considering the inherent difference between students whose parents made the effort to get them into that school at students whose parents didn't try, didn't want to try, didn't succeed, etc.

Combine that with any sort of selective standards for admission, and you are guaranteed that charter schools or private schools will outperform. That isn't an argument for vouchers, it's an argument for greater parental involvement.

Via Kevin Drum... The other reason that CATO seems to be so interested in pushing vouchers is to do some indirect Union bustin. This makes sense, noting where the voucher program is coming from and the tacit admission by its own proponents.

So we have single-minded union hating and a desire for federal dollars with no curriculum requirements or standards.

Thats a really winner of a plan there.