Legislative Battleground: Public Education

I could be wrong, but my initial impression of this state legislative session is that the likely place of greatest contention will be the Education Committees.  And as I consider the nature of the bills filed so far, I sense that a much deeper conversation is needed: can any of these bills fix what ails public education?

The greatest contention will center on a few key concerns:

Common Core

As alluded to in last week’s commentary, there are a number of bills dedicated to issues surrounding “common core.”  What I mean by “common core” is not just the curriculum standards that determine what our students are supposed to learn before they graduate. I include within that term the issue of whom or what will control those standards and, in general, our public schools themselves, particularly when it comes to what information will be collected from our students.  Who will be given that information and for what purpose, and how secure will be its privacy in the hands of government?

Religious Liberty

A couple of bills will address the rights of students to express their religious viewpoints in their academic assignments and at certain events at which students are allowed to speak. Those bills will also address the formation and promotion of religious student clubs.

Governance

There will also be a bill or two overhauling the state Board of Education, all the members of which are now appointed by the Governor.  Under current law, that board decides statewide curriculum standards and whether to adopt or reject the textbooks recommended by the state Textbook Commission.

Curriculum

The state Textbook Commission and its structure will be the focus of some bills. They will address who will evaluate the content of textbooks as well as a book’s substantive content.  According to one sponsor, a friend whom I greatly respect, the objective of his bill is to make sure the Commission recommends textbooks that are “free from biases in their viewpoints” and “reflect the values” of Tennessee citizens.

Neutral Viewpoints

And therein lies the problem, “viewpoints” and “values” are at the heart of education.  One’s philosophy of education dictates the management of the educational system – that is, process– and the content of the academic instruction. Not surprisingly, these two things are at the heart of the aforesaid topics.

One’s philosophy of education — like one’s philosophy on any other subject matter, be it sociology, law, art, etc.  — flows from one’s worldview.

It is in vain that we hope to operate an educational system or develop academic instruction that is neutral in its viewpoint.  Government neutrality is the myth of our time, the goal of utopian dreamers. Consider: can you even be neutral on whether neutrality should be the goal?

A Proposed Solution

An overall solution proposed by some friends, who I also admire, is vouchers or opportunity scholarships, as supporters prefer to call them. While there are reasons not to support such scholarships, I think they do more good than harm in that they do allow parents a measure of freedom to search for the educational philosophy they desire for their children.

Will It Work?

The question is whether that solution will work.  I think it might, in the short run. But the issue not addressed is the fact that the apparatus of government still dictates the system, particularly our largely unaccountable judiciary.

For an example in a different context, a friend recently said that he had wanted a Christian classical education for his children, who are now adults.  As I thought about what he said in the context of a government-funded scholarship, I couldn’t help but think that the judges who sit as a super-legislature over us would never permit that. These scholarships give some freedom, but government is ultimately still in control.

The Heretical Solution

The real solution, which is actually an heretical viewpoint today, is for government to begin to find a way to get out of the education business so that parents can once again be free to work together to educate their children.

Admittedly, the rug can’t be pulled out from public education any more than a non-magician can pull off the tablecloth without breaking the dishes piled on it.  But parents cannot control their child’s education so long as an out-of-control government philosophy is in control.

Such freedom is a scary thought, at times even to me. It was a scary thought to Karl Marx too, which is why his worldview called for government schools and compulsory education.

Worldview. That’s the real battle brewing at the state Capitol. The question is whether we’ll recognize it or have the stomach for it if we do.