This commentary was first published in the Minnesota Free Market Institute Weekly Update. For your free subscription, click here.
Neal McCluskey of the Cato Institute (“Feds in the Classroom“) alerts us to a truly disturbing consequence of the federal government’s intervention in education. The U.S. Constitution provides no grant of authority for federal involvement in education. As the founders recognized, a government that has no moral authority to mandate how people worship has no moral authority to indoctrinate people as to how or what to think. The commonality of freedom of religion and freedom of education, blurred by the No Child Left Behind Act, is about to be obliterated by President Obama’s September 8 address to the nation’s school children.
The president’s speech is not simply an extended public service announcement encouraging students to work hard and stay in school, a message most of us would agree is worthwhile for any president to deliver and every student to hear. The president’s speech is the point of the spear in a concentrated campaign that exposes the dangers of a monopoly system of government-run education.
Irrespective of who controls the White House, an education system manipulated by the president and the Department of Education is not in keeping with the principles of a free society.
As a prelude to the President’s speech, the taxpayer-funded U.S. Department of Education (remember when Americans took seriously the idea that Department of Education should be abolished?) has sent detailed lesson plans for grades pre-K-6 and 7-12 to schools nationwide. The lesson plans, “developed by and for teachers,” outline ways to capitalize on the message of the president’s speech – how to support the president and his goals – not the educational opportunity to teach critical thinking and analysis.
In a letter anticipating the president’s address, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan flatters teachers by noting that their work is “critical to…our social progress.” As McCluskey notes, Duncan’s statement strongly suggests – “as many educators have held and continue to hold” – that it is the job of public schools to impose values, often collectivist, on students. The lesson plans sent out by Duncan do little to dispel that idea.
Pre-K-6 kids are encouraged to make posters setting out “community and country” goals. The lessons encourage schools to teach that it is important to listen to “the President and other elected officials.” Even more than just listen is guidance that is explicitly designed to glorify the office of the presidency and Barack Obama specifically. Teachers are encouraged to ask students how President Obama will “inspire” them in his speech before he gives it, and how they were inspired after he has spoken.
Again, let me be clear: This idea of a “cult of the presidency” is being exploited in the extreme by the Obama administration, but it is a bipartisan malady. As I wrote during the presidential campaign, both Obama and Sen. John McCain campaigned for a presidency that is nowhere to be found in the Constitution – as is constitutional authority absent for a federal role in education.
The thrust of McCluskey’s work in general points out the inherent dangers of government controlling education (again irrespective of who controls the White House). Power corrupts, and ultimately politicians will use power over education to indoctrinate children, something completely antithetical to a free society. And this is just the starkest manifestation of the inherent problem with government control of education. Every day, writes McCluskey, free people are pitted against one another in defense of their freedom and basic values because they all have to support a single system of government schools.
“Evolution vs. creationism. Prayer in school. Books with offensive material in schools libraries. Decisions over whose history will be taught, and whose won’t. The curtailment of freedom goes on and on when government takes everyone’s money and provides schools with it,” writes McCluskey. “Which is why the only system of learning compatible with a truly free society is a system of school choice – public education, not schooling – in which the public assures that all people can access education, but parents are free to choose their children’s schools, and educators are free to educate how they wish.
Andrew Coulson, also of the Cato Institute, notes the irony of the president saying nice things about kids staying in school and graduating while his own actions and policies are having the opposite effect. Although there is copious scientific research showing that private schools have higher graduation rates than public schools, and that their graduates are more likely to go on to college and complete college, and the president’s own Department of Education found that the DC voucher program is producing significantly better academic results than DC public schools (and at a quarter of the cost), the President Obama has chosen to kill the DC voucher program rather than grow it, and he opposes private school choice programs at the state level that would bring these better educational outcomes within reach of all children.
“So kids, here’s your lesson for next Tuesday,” he writes. “The guy talking at you from the television set may say a lot of nice sounding things, but he is not doing what is best for you. He is letting some combination of ideology and political self-interest trump what is best for you. That’s politics. And that’s one reason why we need limited government and educational freedom.