01/29/2007 04:48 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Schools as the Locus of Some Social Conflicts, Not the Cause

[Note: People appeared to like the blog on Simpson's Paradox so statistics will be a recurring theme in these blogs]

On Tuesday, January 23, I ambled over to the libertarian Cato Institute to debate a paper written by Cato policy analyst, Neal McCluskey, "Why We Fight: How Public Schools Cause Social Conflict." Joining the debate were Cato's Andrew Coulson and the Freedom Foundation's First Amendment Center director, Charles Haynes.

McCluskey found some150 school-related, publicly reported values conflicts during 2005-2006. They fell into only a few categories such as religion, intelligent design, sex education, homosexuality, freedom of expression, etc. McCluskey argued that people on the losing end of decisions in these conflicts were then forced to support and pay for schools that did not reflect their values, something he found "inherently authoritarian." The solution? Give parents vouchers that would follow the children as they located schools that reflected their values.

Haynes countered that he dealt with an enormous range of conflicts every day--much wider than those posited by McCluskey and that he was amazed at how often the schools were able to find solutions acceptable to all.

I said that schools reflect the larger cultures in which they are embedded. This nation contains an amazingly wide set of subcultures between which conflicts abound. To say that the schools are then the cause of the conflicts is absurd. Schools did not order blacks to the back of the bus; schools did not create a closet for gays. Probably few teachers told their charges that a book written in English by males is the word of God. Schools are often the settings in which the conflicts are discussed, debated, and decided, other major social institutions having withered. This is democracy in action, not something to be avoided with vouchers.

McCluskey envisioned people seeking their own kind ending in a peaceable kingdom where we all just get along. I saw it ending in ignorance and exclusion. I recounted my experience prepping for the debate by visiting the Institute for Human Studies, part of George Mason University's Arlington campus, apparently dedicated to the ideas of Friedrich Hayek. All of the books in the library's education section criticize public schools. Many propose vouchers or home schooling in some form. A person studying education via these hundreds of books would have no knowledge of the many other perspectives and theories about what public education could and should be. Isolation increases the ease with which some human beings can come to see other human beings as gooks or towel heads, not as people.

McCluskey cited examples of how European nations had used choice and vouchers to reduce conflict. I pointed out, though, that choice in Europe was a farce because the state determined everything else. You might choose to go to a Catholic, Protestant or Muslim school or some secular-oriented school, but you would study the same things no matter. Teachers in private schools must have the same qualifications as in public schools. The state determines the curriculum for all schools. The state decides what the end-of-course exams will assess. In some instances, the state even decides what methods the teachers must use to teach the curriculum.

I asked how we would determine the limits of choice. Would we allow schools for skinheads whose values include hatred of blacks and gays? Schools that promote polygamy? Who will set the standards? Who will decide what goes?

Practical considerations also doom McCluskey's proposal, I think. When I moved to Virginia in 1991 the neighborhood had Giants and Safeways and Balducci's, then known as Sutton Place. Now it has Giants and Safeways and Balducci's and Whole Foods and Harris Teeters and Wegmans and Trader Joe's and any number of boutique food stores. On the other hand, the last supermarket left Anacostia, an impoverished Washington, DC, neighborhood in 1998. No Starbucks or Caribous offer lattes in Anacostia. What would be the incentive to build voucher-accepting schools there? Those children least well served by the current public schools would suffer even more under the proposed system of choice.

And schools would have to be built. A 1993 estimate concluded that the existing private schools could absorb about 4% of existing public school students. The private schools created under Milwaukee's voucher program are mostly very small and have arrived on average at three per year in the 16 years of the program. The 48 new schools contain fewer than 10,000 students.

Nothing in this little essay should be taken as a defense of the status quo in public education. But for the reasons given above (and others) I don't see vouchers as either a way to improve education or reduce social conflict.

McCluskey's paper is at It's almost 60 pages long but everything after page 16 is an appendix of examples. My reaction is, or soon will be, at