How to Bring Some Peace to the Woke Ed Wars
Florida Governor Ron DeSantis recently proposed a $106 million civics education initiative, reflecting growing fears of civics ignorance in a country shocked by the storming of the U.S. Capitol, and political cleavages that seem to deepen by the hour. But even as he touted a solution to our deep-seated political conflicts he intensified them, declaring that “there’s no room in our classrooms for things like critical race theory teaching kids to hate their country and to hate each other.”
By declaring critical race theory (CRT) off-limits, rather than bringing diverse people together DeSantis was pitting them against each other. But it was not his fault. Public schooling forces zero-sum conflict such as we are seeing over CRT. And Florida, supported by DeSantis, is a leader in what can ultimately end inescapable warfare: school choice.
Throughout its history public schooling has pitted people with differing backgrounds and beliefs against each other, from Roman Catholics and Protestants fighting over whose version of the Bible schools would use in the 1840s, to immigrants resisting "Americanization" that many found demeaning in the early twentieth century, to CRT today.
Public schooling makes conflict inevitable: It is constructed to deliver uniform education, but the people who must pay for it are diverse in their beliefs, backgrounds, and desires.
Today, we constantly see values- and identity-based conflicts in public schools. The Cato Institute’s Public Schooling Battle Map, an interactive database that I maintain, contains more than 2,400 such battles. And with new conflagrations constantly igniting I have a large backup of unposted conflicts over reading lists, bathroom policies, and yes, CRT.
Depending on who you ask, CRT and related ideas constitute either a long-delayed reckoning with ugly truths, or a racist construct that demonizes the United States and White people.
The only thing the two sides seem to have in common is seeking to dominate the education space.
The What Are They Learning website catalogues CRT-type teachings being infused into districts from Maryland to California. Meanwhile, many states are seeing legislative and other government action to bar CRT from public schools.
But maybe one side is indisputably right about CRT. Maybe it is clearly speaking truth to power. Or maybe it is incontrovertibly racist.
Or maybe not.
Asserting that all White people are racist, perhaps even subconsciously, is certainly concerning. It essentially finds people guilty of heinous beliefs simply by virtue of their skin. That said, race is undeniably a major factor in our lives, and our minds instinctively use shorthand — stereotypes — to make sense of our world.
There is also evidence of systemic racism. For instance, the median White household has $188,200 in wealth, versus just $24,100 for the median Black family. This is at least partially due to government policies that systematically handicapped African Americans, including federal housing programs that through the 1960s made it much harder for Blacks to buy homes in preferable areas, homes that have been major sources of White wealth.
But the country’s exemplary aspirations — liberty and equality for all — have often been lived out. In 2008, we elected our first Black president, and just a few months ago our first female, and person of color, vice president. Meanwhile, White support for interracial marriage and integrated schooling rose from majority opposition in the mid-20th century to near unanimity today.
There are simply no indisputably right answers to the questions CRT tackles, at least not that any human beings, with our finite minds, can know for certain.
But public schools must choose. They must either teach CRT or not.
This is where school choice comes in. Choice fundamentally changes education, moving from uniform government schooling, to funding individual children and letting millions of families and educators choose for themselves what they think is right. It ends the need to fight and puts CRT and other debates much more firmly where they belong: the marketplace of ideas.
We have seen how this can help bring peace. In Europe, choice of Catholic, Protestant, or other schools became widespread as countries worked, often successfully, to end centuries of religious conflicts.
In the United States, Florida has led the way on choice, with nearly 179,000 students currently exercising it through state programs.
Thankfully, a number of states with anti-CRT bills — New Hampshire, Missouri, Arkansas, Iowa, and West Virginia – are also seeing legislation to create or expand educational freedom. They would do well to focus on the latter.
Of course, funding students instead of schools will not end heated disagreement over ideas like CRT. But it can end inescapable conflict, and help preserve the free exchange of ideas.
Neal McCluskey is the director of the Cato Institute’s Center for Educational Freedom Cato Institute and co-editor of the book School Choice Myths: Setting the Record Straight on Education Freedom.