Culture War

Public Schools Are Not Value-Neutral

August 19, 2019
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“Should the public be funding religious education?”

That’s the question the Supreme Court may soon clarify when it hears Espinoza v. Montana Dept. of Revenue—a case that currently allows states to deny state-supported scholarships to students attending religious private schools.

The facts of Espinoza are fairly simple. As the Institute for Justice, which is litigating the case, explains:

In 2015, the Montana Legislature, likewise, enacted a scholarship program that provides a modest tax credit (up to $150 annually) to individuals and businesses who donate to private scholarship organizations. Those scholarship organizations could then use the donations to give scholarships to needy families who want to send their children to private schools, including religious schools.

Soon after the program’s passage, however, the Montana Department of Revenue enacted an administrative rule that prohibited participants from using their scholarships at religious schools. The Department claimed that the “Blaine Amendment” of the Montana Constitution required the exclusion of religious options. In 2018, the Montana Supreme Court agreed with the Department’s view but took it one step further: In a 5-2 ruling, the court invalidated the entire scholarship program simply because it afforded parents and students the choice of religious schools. Families who wish to use the scholarships at religious schools challenged the decision as a violation of their free exercise rights under the First Amendment.

Hence the Espinoza challenge.

All such cases are essentially challenges to the Establishment Clause. But what Establishment Clause jurisprudence has yet to grapple with is the fact that public education is not and never has been ideologically neutral.

Under the guise of being values-neutral, state and federal officials have effectively established a state-sponsored ideology within public schools. They take sides on how schools must handle sensitive, values-dependent issues—from something as broad as the purpose of education to issues as granular and culturally charged as sex education, transgender bathrooms, and religion. On any one of these areas, how is it possible to take and teach a neutral position? Even attempting to merely “teach the controversy” still means taking a gatekeeping position in deciding which controversies should be taught—to the exclusion of others. It means dictating the extent to which different types of students should be accommodated in their personal, religious, and cultural differences. In outcome, none of this can be “neutral.”

After all, many communities directly experience the consequences of a state-run school system that is, for them, the opposite of ideologically neutral. The Catholic community, for instance, has been historically discriminated against by majority-Protestant district schools. Generations of black families are still being taught from whitewashed history textbooks within school buildings named after Confederate generals. A broad swath of religious families, like the one in which I grew up, choose to homeschool because of certain state teachings on religion or because they find secular sex education troubling. There’s a growing number of vegan households that can’t tolerate nutrition education at public schools. The list goes on and on. Because as it turns out, Americans don’t all believe in the same things.

The most common objection to an equal-funding approach to all educational models is “I don’t want my tax dollars funding X.” That “X” might be creationism, prayer in schools, transgender “ideology,” or a Western/white-centric curriculum. Yet, there are plenty of people who could say exactly the same for what is currently being taught in public schools. After all, I think teaching creationism or abstinence-only sex education is bad news, but I don’t see why that should matter. My tax dollars are no more valuable than the tax dollars of people who like such things—particularly when it comes to deciding what their children should learn.

Christian Barnard

Christian Barnard is an education policy analyst at Reason Foundation and a Young Voices contributor. Follow him on Twitter @CBarnard33.