A Free Market in Education: The Answer to Prayer, And Other Issues

By Lawrence W. Reed | May 13, 2014 | 1:48pm EDT

On May 5, 1925, an arrest warrant was served on public school teacher John T. Scopes on charges of teaching evolution in violation of the Butler Act. Today, it's far more likely he would be arrested for NOT teaching it.

No matter where you are on the issue, there is no solution to it within a government school context, only perpetual conflict. The answer involves choice, competition and private alternatives. If you don't like what a business offers, you don't argue endlessly about it; you walk across the street. Why is this principle so complicated for some people?

Within days of the GOP winning control of the House of Representatives in 1994, incoming Speaker Newt Gingrich promised that Congress would take up the issue of a constitutional amendment to permit voluntary school prayer. That news must have hit me at an uncharacteristically irritable moment. I have vivid memories of it. "Why even bring it up?" I thought. "Congress ought to focus its attention on fixing the economy by rolling back the intrusions of the central government. Besides, children have every right now to take a moment on their own and say a quiet prayer; amending the Constitution to permit anything else would open the door to subtle coercion and endless litigation. What could prayer in school accomplish that can't be accomplished by prayer outside of school?"

But understanding the school prayer controversy is impossible without an appreciation for the endurance of Christian parents who have children in public schools. They, in general, exhibit far more tolerance than many of their secular, anti-school prayer critics. I wish more of them could and would "Just say NO!" to government schools and take their money and kids elsewhere.

Christian parents today feel besieged, as if they have been targeted as the one group in America that anybody can ridicule and discriminate against-legally and proudly. Most of them would probably turn the other cheek were it not for the fact that when it comes to public schools, their tax dollars are helping to finance the assault.

America's Christian heritage-an undeniable and vitally important ingredient in this nation's success-is being systematically expunged from classroom history texts. Even Christmas trees and Santa Claus are banned in some schools as threats to the separation of church and state. Simply allowing Christian students to meet on school grounds after hours, much as the Future Farmers of America or a homosexual group can do, had to be fought for tooth and nail all the way to the Supreme Court.

The Constitution's guarantee of freedom of religion has become taxpayer-funded freedom from religion. Bring a Bible to school, even if you plan to read it during free time, and all Hell may break loose. A Koran or a slutty novel may be just fine. And if you're asked to give the valedictory address at Commencement, reference to God or Jesus will constitute a serious attempt to re-establish a medieval theocratic State.

It happens all the time now, and much worse.

While it's deemed unconstitutional, anti-social, and even backward to cite the Bible in the classroom to make a point, it's OK for teachers to put condoms on bananas in a sex education class, or to teach that no one person's view of right and wrong is any better than the next person's. Christian parents who believe otherwise are expected to keep quiet and send the kid, as well as the money the system spends, to undermine what they've taught at home.

"But if Christians object," public education's apologists retort, "they can send their children to private schools." Sure, and pay twice-once in tuition for the school they buy and again in taxes for the other product they've rejected.

Incidentally, though I've referred to Christians up to this point, there are certainly other groups I could have included. Christians are not the only people who have problems with what goes on (or doesn't) in the public schools.

A carefully crafted constitutional amendment on this matter may be a remedy that will satisfy Christians but the question is, will it satisfy atheists or agnostics? What about others whose tax dollars pay for the schools but who don't want even voluntary prayer being supervised on government property with government employees?

There is a larger point here than simply the fact that public schools have become intolerant to religion in general and perhaps Christianity in particular. That point is this: there can be no final resolution of matters of this nature, no universal satisfaction, within the context of a coercively-financed system that has captives instead of customers. When you hear the motto, "Satisfaction Guaranteed or Your Money Back," the last thing that should come to mind is a government program.

In free markets where individual choice prevails, conflict is minimized. You get what you pay for and you pay for what you get. If you don't like the wares in one store, there's no need to throw up a picket line. You don't have to attend lengthy and boring meetings and be talked down to by public "servants." You don't have to wait until the next election and hope that 50 percent plus one of those who vote will vote the way you'd like them to. You simply shop elsewhere. End of discussion.

And by the way, consider the lesson in this analogy: Imagine a restaurant that takes the position that people should be compelled to be its patrons according to their zip codes. Its motto is, "If you live here, you eat here-or else!" The restaurant's management and staff are personally opposed to allowing "restaurant choice." They say their grub is good but they don't have the confidence to let you decide. You want to go elsewhere? Fine, but you still have to pay them for what you don't eat at their "fine" establishment. Would you take your kids to eat there?

I'll speak for myself and say this much: Once school administrators or teachers publicly admit they oppose parental choice, that's all I need to know. I wouldn't want my kids anywhere near 'em. The best administrators and teachers have no problem with it, but I fear they are outnumbered by the dubious ones who have no problem with coercion.

Controversies like prayer, or sex education in the schools will not end until concerned parents can freely opt for private alternatives without being forced to pay for public systems that assault their beliefs and values. Those who believe that a constitutional amendment allowing voluntary school prayer will solve problems should understand that it would solve some problems, create others, and leave the fundamental dilemma unchanged.

A free market in education would be a real answer to prayer.

Editor's Note: Lawrence W. Reed is president of the Foundation for Economic


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