Thoughts on public education

Star Parker

10/3/2005 12:00:00 AM - Star Parker

In ninth-grade science classes in Dover, a little town in Pennsylvania, teachers are required to read a statement to their students that Intelligent Design should be considered as an alternative view to evolution as an explanation for life as we know it. Eleven parents have sued the school board and the school district, claiming that Intelligent Design is not science but religion and hence constitutionally off-limits in public schools.

The consensus seems to be that this case will wind up in the U.S. Supreme Court. Yet accounts of this issue are missing the real problem.

The crisis today is not defining religion or science but education itself. And we have lost perspective how education has suffered as result of it being a government-controlled monopoly.

This has important implications in general on the quality of education we provide our kids. Furthermore, it has produced a hopeless situation in inner city schools.

News from China this week is that state censorship agencies have issued new rules about what kind of news may be published on the Internet. The rules established 11 "forbidden zones" and include a ban on anything that might promote religious beliefs.

Is it a little eerie to think that we run our public schools like the Chinese communists run their marketplace? The point of education was not a mystery to one of the pioneers of American public education, Horace Mann. For Mann, whose ideas on education reflected those of such men as Benjamin Franklin, "with universal suffrage, there must be universal elevation of character, intellectual and moral, or there will be universal mismanagement and calamity."

The reason we require schooling, according to Mann, is that a free country needs responsible, enlightened citizens to function. Accordingly, Mann says, in school curricula "principles of morality should be copiously intermingled with the principles of science."

We clearly live in a country today far different than the 19th-century America of Horace Mann. To even suggest, as part of a public school curriculum, that religion is a legitimate way to address the mystery of life will land you in court. So the task of the lawyers defending Intelligent Design is not to prove that it is science, but to show that it is not religion.

Given that public schools today do not permit Horace Mann's "principles of morality" to be copiously intermingled, or even gingerly intermingled, with the "principles of science," the best face that can now be put on public education is to call it vocational education.

We've lost sight of the goal of public education producing better people and citizens. We can't even agree about what this means.

The parents in Dover who are suing say that parents, not schools, should be responsible for a child's religious education.

This may work OK with kids who come from intact families. But in today's America, with high divorce rates, and where almost three of 10 babies are born to unwed mothers, this is becoming increasingly rare.

In inner-city black America, disrupted families are, unfortunately, the rule rather than the exception. Most black kids in inner-city schools come from single-parent homes.

The result is these kids come from directionless homes and go to directionless schools. Half wind up dropping out, and the ones who make it through graduate with eighth-grade reading skills.

However one chooses to rationalize how the black family got into such bad shape, we have now only the fact. And we have only the fact that black poverty and the black underclass will persist for another 50 years if black children do not get educated.

Value neutral, or as is more often the case, politically correct, government schools will never educate black children who live in social chaos.

Rather than trying to rationalize religion and morality back into public schools, the only reasonable approach in today's America is to fight government control of schools.

Allow parents to choose where to send their kids to school. Parents, not judges or bureaucrats, should decide whether to send their child to a school that teaches Intelligent Design.

And black kids should be given the opportunity to go to schools that are allowed to teach how to live as well as what to learn to get a job.

Star Parker is author of "Uncle Sam's Plantation: How Big Government Enslaves America's Poor and What We Can Do about It" and president of CURE, Coalition on Urban Renewal and Education, www.urbancure.org.