The local left has been quick to criticize Gov. Tim Pawlenty’s comments made on NBC’s ‘Meet the Press.’ The governor told host Tom Brokaw he found ‘intelligent design’ plausible, that it was something he ‘personally believed in’ and that he supported comments by GOP vice presidential nominee Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin that intelligent design should be taught along with evolution in the schools.
“We’ve said in Minnesota, in my view, this is a local decision,” Pawlenty said. “Intelligent design is something that, in my view, is plausible and credible and something that I personally believe in but, more importantly, from an educational and scientific standpoint, it should be decided by local school boards at the local school district level.”
The governor’s political critics jumped all over his statements with ready ridicule for intelligent design. All well and good, that’s the partisan world we live in. But by taking the cheap and easy shots at straw-man conceptions of religion, the left misses a much greater concern — the relationship between curriculum and government control, which ironically is essential to the progressive concept of “public education.”
“Intelligent design (is) a widely discredited theory that evolution is disputable and life is the result of an intelligent force,” wrote Minnesota 2020 fellow John Fitzgerald, disrespecting the governor’s personal belief while misrepresenting the policy debate. The policy debate is not whether intelligent design is true (if only absolute “truth” were taught in science classes, there would be sparse content indeed); the policy debate is whether intelligent design is a valid scientific pursuit that ought to be taught in public schools and, if so, in science classes.
And frankly, mathematicians are more likely to find a repeating pattern in the decimal equivalent of pi than are policy-makers likely to put the intelligent design/theory of evolution debate to rest. But then, ending debate is not the role of government in a free society, is it?
Nonetheless, having government officials decide which side prevails in the debate is exactly what Pawlenty AND his critics want done. The governor’s critics want the debate decided at the state level — keep creationism out of the state science standards — while Pawlenty implies that local school boards ought to make the debate-ending decision on whether to teach the theory of evolution, intelligent design or both.
In a phone interview, Neal McCluskey, associate director of the Center for Educational Freedom at the Cato Institute, said Pawlenty’s comments are similar to what he’s seen in a variety of education controversies. “As long as public education decisions are pushed down to the local level, it seems like they are not being imposed on people,” he said. “But just making a decision local doesn’t solve conflict problems — it just imposes on people at the local level.”
While “governor” Pawlenty cannot impose the study of intelligent design on local school districts, citizen Pawlenty has as much right to say, “I pay taxes to support the schools, and I want intelligent design to be part of the curriculum” as does any biology professor or other concerned parent have the right to say, “I want students to learn the theory of evolution and real science.”
McCluskey notes that groups with differing values have no choice but to enter the political melee if they want to see their values taught and desires met by public schools. Everyone pays for public schools, but under our current system, only the politically powerful control what is taught. There is a better way.
Meaningful parental school choice, supported by tax credits and/or vouchers, enables families of all income levels to seek schools that meet the educational rigor they demand and support their educational values. If teaching or not teaching intelligent design is a show-stopper for a family, its members have the option to seek another school.
Conflict in a government-run education system is resolved through a single solution imposed by force. When families have meaningful school choice options, conflict is resolved by individuals making educational choices for their children, voting with their feet, without imposing their values on others.
In this campaign season of change, we need to change our attitude toward parental school choice. Meaningful school choice won’t solve all that ails education. It won’t end the debate over creationism and evolution. But the power of parents choosing schools will create a marketplace of ideas where the strength of argument, not political power, dominates discussions.
Eliminate unnecessary conflicts inherent in government-run education, and educators can stop trying to be all things to all people and — gasp — actually teach.