For decades, we’ve heard opponents of school choice claim that the government school monopoly is our only protection against “jihad schools” that will teach children to hate and kill. In all that time, you know what we haven’t seen? Jihad schools, operating in any of the nation’s 59 private school choice programs across 28 states. In fact, the government school monopoly doesn't protect us from religious division, and it can't do so.
In the years after 9/11, there was a scare about “madrassas”—Islamic religious schools. A vast international network of schools funded by Saudi money, we were told, was brainwashing a new generation of Muslim children into our violent enemies. Something—it was never clear what—had to be done.
Well, there are plenty of Muslims who are our violent enemies, but it turned out there was no evidence madrassas had anything to do with it. In fact, a study by Peter Bergen found that Islamic terrorists were actually much less likely to come from madrasas than from other kinds of schools. Bergen also pointed out that none of the 9/11 pilots or secondary conspirators went to Islamic schools. Which is why you haven't heard anything about madrassas lately.
Unfortunately, this country has a long history of that kind of hysteria when it comes to private schools. The old fear campaigns against Catholic schools have become today’s fear campaigns against Muslim schools—often as a cover-up for what are really anti-Catholic and anti-evangelical bigotries.
In the early 20th century, with support from the Ku Klux Klan and other anti-immigrant groups, Oregon outlawed private schooling. It argued that the filthy popery of private schools threatened to contaminate the purity of our precious cultural unity. In Pierce v. Society of Sisters (1925), the Supreme Court struck down that law and affirmed the right to private schooling.
However, even in taking that wise action, the Court was not immune to cultural hysteria. Looking more at the hypothetical fancies of the Klan than at the behavior of private schools in the real world, the Pierce court affirmed the concerns behind the law it was striking down. It granted states sweeping power to compel private schools to teach religious tolerance, the rule of law and respect for the U.S. Constitution.
Today, all 50 states have laws requiring private schools—whether they participate in school choice programs or not!—to teach children respect for these American values and institutions. Although the historic origin of these laws is in bigoted hysteria, and many of the laws are sloppily drafted, I’m still glad to have them on the books. Even if they’re “only” symbolic, they symbolize our insistence—stretching back through the American founders all the way to John Locke—that citizens have a public and (in principle) enforceable responsibility to support the rule of law and religious freedom. As Justice Robert Jackson said, dissenting from a 1949 Supreme Court decision which held that fascist anti-Semite Arthur Terminiello was exercising free speech rights when he incited a violent riot in Chicago: The Constitution is not a suicide pact.
But these laws have never been needed, because American private schools have always been eager to teach religious tolerance, the rule of law, and respect for the U.S. Constitution. Education scholar Pat Wolf reviewed a large body of U.S. studies and found a consensus that private schools are actually more effective than public schools in teaching tolerance for the rights of others, as well as other civic values and practices essential to democracy and pluralism. My review of studies looking particularly at school choice programs found the same.
Why these scares about private schools belonging to minority religions? They feel really good to a certain kind of person—to those who give in to fear about the strength of American civilization. We have always been a dynamic and even a chaotic people. We feel a constant need to reassure ourselves that there is some firm and stable center to our culture. (Europeans tend to see this in us more clearly than we see it in ourselves; it’s one of the things they most commonly dislike about us.)
Cultural integrity is a legitimate concern. But dealing with it the right way, with respect for religious diversity, is hard and painful work. The cowardly and the infantile want instant gratification.
There is, however, another factor at work. In the face of religious pluralism, many people adopt the view that only a deliberately secularized institution can be trusted to maintain tolerance and diversity. Religious institutions are obviously partisan among beliefs. So institutions are rigorously secularized in hopes that this will make them neutral.
In fact, it does the opposite. Deliberately secularized organizations have to stigmatize and exclude religious concerns from their shared life in order to maintain their secular identity; this marginalizes and alienates religious people. As Wolf’s evidence shows, it is not empirically true that secular schools produce tolerant and democratic citizens. They are actually more likely than religious schools to produce people who don’t respect the rights of others.
This is because a secular institution can tell you to be good (be tolerant, respect diversity, etc.) but it can’t tell you why. It can’t connect the rules of right behavior to deep sources of meaning, purpose, and identity. It ends up just spewing a lot of sentimental gas, and then wagging its finger at you if that doesn’t work, and then punishing you. Or it offers utilitarian, mercenary reasons to be good. None of that helps students form either a deep attachment to moral rules or the self-discipline to carry them out.
By contrast, religious schools have proven themselves effective in producing citizens who tolerate others and respect the rule of law. School choice creates harmony by allowing all religions to participate in education on equal terms. It would be a major step forward in defusing our culture wars and preserving religious peace.
[Greg Forster (Ph.D., Yale University) is a senior fellow with the Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice. He is the author of six books, including John Locke’s Politics of Moral Consensus (Cambridge University Press, 2005) and Joy for the World: How Christianity Lost Its Cultural Influence and Can Begin Rebuilding It (Crossway Books, 2014). He has written numerous articles in peer-reviewed academic journals as well as in popular publications such as the Washington Post and the Chronicle of Higher Education.]