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Public education without students? New movement could transform America’s schools

What if they offered public education and no one came? That question, similar to the anti-war slogan popularized by Charlotte E. Keyes, is becoming more poignant by the day.

This month, Florida is moving to allow all residents the choice to go to private or public schools. Other states like Utah are moving toward a similar alternative with school vouchers. I oppose such moves away from public schools, but I have lost faith in the willingness of most schools to restore educational priorities and standards.

Faced with school boards and teacher unions resisting parental objections to school policies over curriculum and social issues, states are on the brink of a transformative change. For years, boards and teacher unions have treated parents as unwelcome interlopers in their children’s education.

That view was captured this week in the comment of Iowa school board member Rachel Wall, who said: “The purpose of a public ed is to not teach kids what the parents want. It is to teach them what society needs them to know. The client is not the parent, but the community.”

State Rep. Lee Snodgrass (D-Wis.) tweeted: “If parents want to ‘have a say’ in their child’s education, they should home school or pay for private school tuition out of their family budget.”

Now legislators are moving to do precisely that — but with public funds. It could be a game-changer. Parents overwhelmingly appear to support a classical education focused on core subjects rather than “social change.” They overwhelmingly support parental notice when their children engage in gender transitioning or other major decisions.

Many parents also are angered by teachers, unions and boards shutting down schools during the pandemic despite other countries keeping them open and studies that showed children were not at high risk. The United States experienced soaring mental illness rates and plunging test scores.

Parents who questioned those policies were treated as extremists.

Michelle Leete, vice president of training at the Virginia PTA and vice president of communications for the Fairfax County PTA, said parents would not force them to reverse their agenda: “Let them die. Don’t let these uncomfortable people deter us from our bold march forward.”

Many of us have advocated for public education for decades. I sent my children to public schools, and I still hope we can turn this around without wholesale voucher systems. Yet teachers and boards are killing the institution of public education by treating children and parents more like captives than consumers. They are force-feeding social and political priorities, including passes for engaging in approved protests.

As public schools continue to produce abysmal scores, particularly for minority students, board and union officials have called for lowering or suspending proficiency standards or declared meritocracy to be a form of “white supremacy.” Gifted and talented programs are being eliminated in the name of “equity.”

Once parents have a choice, these teachers lose a virtual monopoly over many families, and these districts could lose billions in states like Florida.

While I remain concerned how vouchers could be the death of public primary and secondary education, I believe states need to use the power of the purse to reform higher education.

Despite years of complaints over a rising orthodoxy at schools, most universities have reduced conservative and libertarian faculty to rare oddities. Some schools have virtually no Republican faculty. Faculty have created political echo-chambers that advance their own views while excluding alternative voices. As a result, polls show a high number of students are fearful about sharing their views in classes.

I oppose laws prohibiting certain theories from being taught in universities, but I also believe academics can no longer show open contempt for the half of this country with conservative, libertarian or independent views. At many public universities, the message is that you need to give universities not only total deference but total support in excluding conservative views and maintaining intolerant ideological environments.

It may be too late for private universities, which are likely to continue to exclude all but a tiny number of conservatives or libertarians. They have the support of many in the media. Above the Law’s senior editor, Joe Patrice, defended “predominantly liberal faculties” and argued that hiring a conservative academic is akin to allowing a believer in geocentrism — the idea that the sun orbits the earth — to teach.

While some private schools like the University of Chicago have stood firm in support of free speech, most of the schools on the top of a recent ranking were public universities. That is no surprise. As state schools, these universities are subject to First Amendment protections and there is greater ability to contest the current academic orthodoxy. Indeed, courts repeatedly rule against universities. Yet administrators have an incentive to yield to the mob, even at the cost of millions in litigation costs. And few academics have an incentive to fight for greater political diversity on campus and risk being tagged in cancel campaigns.

This is why public universities could be the final line of defense for free speech in higher education.

States are no more captive to these schools than are parents. Why should conservatives and independents continue to pay taxes for universities that actively exclude faculty who share their values or viewpoints? Half of this country funds schools that have little tolerance for their values or voices; they can reduce their support and let such universities seek private funding if they insist on making a “liberal education” a literal goal.

We need public universities to offer a free-speech alternative. If we can maintain that protection, we may find that public universities become the primary choice of many who want to learn in politically diverse, tolerant environments.

For elementary, middle and high schools, voucher programs may allow parents to speak with their feet. I hope we do not come to that — but the opposition to vouchers is telling. The alarm is based on the recognition that, given a choice, many families would not choose what public schools are offering. This includes many minority families who want to escape from a cycle of education that leaves many students barely literate and lost. They likely would prefer an alternative to a system like Baltimore’s, where a student failed all but three classes and still graduated in the top half of his class.

I worry about how voucher systems will impact public schools because many districts would fare poorly in a competitive market. However, these proposals are a shot across the bow to all such districts. They could easily find themselves with an agenda-packed curriculum but far fewer students to teach.

Jonathan Turley is the Shapiro Professor of Public Interest Law at George Washington University. Follow him on Twitter @JonathanTurley.

Tags conservative professors education funding Education in the United States Education policy Educational attainment in the United States educational curriculum Educational equity Educational practices free speech free speech on campus liberal bias in higher education Meritocracy Parents parents' rights Private Schools Public education in the United States public school public school curriculum public school funding public schools Republican faculty Republican professors Republican teachers school boards School choice school vouchers teachers unions

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