Don’t Like the Texas Board of Education’s Brainwashing? There’s a Simple Solution.

Thom Lambert —  21 March 2010

Lots of liberals, such as Wall Street Journal columnist Thomas Frank and folks from the Huffington Post and People for the American’s Way’s Right Wing Watch, are all up in arms over the Texas Board of Education’s recent efforts to push Texas’s public school curriculum in a decidedly “conservative” direction. As Todd and Josh noted, the Board recently voted to require high school economics curricula to cover the ideas of free marketeers F.A. Hayek and Milton Friedman. The Board also called for curricula to put less emphasis on that godless Thomas Jefferson and more on Protestant reformer John Calvin; to replace the term “capitalism” with “free market system” (apparently on grounds that the former term is often used derisively, as in “You capitalist pig!”); and to include consideration of the “unintended consequences” of a number of such “liberal” initiatives as the Great Society, affirmative action, and Title IX.

Given the massive size of the Texas public school system, the curricular changes ordered by the Texas Board of Education are likely to influence textbooks used all across the nation. Thus, liberal critics contend, a small group of right-wingers in Texas is effectively pushing their own contestable values and beliefs on schoolchildren all over the country. That’s troubling, they say.

And they’re right. Who are these folks to decide that your children or mine should learn more about Christian theologians John Calvin and Thomas Aquinas and less about deist founding father Thomas Jefferson? While I agree with Todd and Josh that Hayek’s ideas are worth learning in a high school economics class, I think it’s troubling (and I’m certain F.A. himself would concur) that this is happening because some know-it-all elites in Texas decided that Hayek’s ideas are worthy and others’ aren’t.

But there’s a simple solution to this problem: Get the government out of the curriculum-setting business altogether. We could take the money the government spends running its own schools and give that money to parents to spend on the education they think their child should receive. At a minimum, we could let parents who want to opt-out of a government-sponsored school take the money that would have been spent on their child’s public education and apply it to tuition at another school. This sort of system would not only improve educational standards by enhancing the competition public schools face, it would also permit parents to control the substantive content of the education their children receive — to avoid indoctrination they deem offensive or wrong. We could, of course, have some basic standards for schools that receive tax revenues (e.g., they would have to produce students that perform adequately on skills and knowledge tests, etc.), but this decentralized approach could avoid the thorny values issues that are inevitable when any small group of government elites — be they conservative or liberal, religious or anti-religious — decide what matters will be taught and how.

Unfortunately, many modern liberals (though not the ones whose children are trapped in failing public schools!) reflexively oppose school choice. Thomas Frank, for example, refers to vouchers as one of those cold-hearted capitalist innovations that oppress the populist masses. And just this week, 54 of 59 Democratic (or Democratic-caucusing) Senators voted to kill the popular voucher program in the District of Columbia.

Maybe all this mess in Texas will at last convince these so-called liberals to finally become pro-choice on something other than abortion.

Thom Lambert

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I am a law professor at the University of Missouri Law School. I teach antitrust law, business organizations, and contracts. My scholarship focuses on regulatory theory, with a particular emphasis on antitrust.

6 responses to Don’t Like the Texas Board of Education’s Brainwashing? There’s a Simple Solution.

  1. 

    Joey,

    The same well educated California thats budget shortfall is projected to be over $40 billion dollars at the end of the 2009-2010 fiscal year. Meanwhile Texas is the headquarters of 58 Fortune 500 companies and has a gross state product of 1.245 trillion, the 2nd highest in America. They have limited business regulation and no state income tax. I personally am not a fan of the state, but to claim that TX is a “less educated” burden on the backs of the “well educated Northeast and CA” is simply inaccurate.

  2. 

    So, if other states like CA “do there own thing,” then small, free-riding districts can choose between books written to please different sets of sensibilities. If this is so, than the complaint is really that these districts actually prefer TX sanction books over CA sanction books. Or, we must protect these poor benighted souls from being corrupted by the evil Texans rather than pursuing enlightenment along the Californian path. Paleeze, this is paternalism at its worst.

  3. 

    California does do its own thing re: textbooks. It’s many of the other, smaller states that tend to free ride off Texas. Fortunately, we live in an age when good teachers can and do supplement what the school adminstration provides through resources that can be found on the internet for free. But that doesn’t solve a systemic problem. In any event, I take issue with the original post for the idea that simply opting out of public schools solves the problem created by Texas. Private schools may use the same textbooks for the same reason that public schools may choose them — money. Irrespective of one’s position on vouchers, I think it’s bad public policy to force false history & science on even one child who is depending on the government to provide an education.

  4. 

    OK, more seriously…

    The problem with the Texas board–and many other conservatives– is that they refuse to consider the possibility that an idea they dislike may still be correct; in their world, any idea that does not fit their preconceived notions of truth must, by definition, by *incorrect.*

    Yes, I’m alarmed that many conservatives want to indoctrinate all our children with foolish ideas (such as saying evolution isn’t true, or that judicial activism is always bad), but I’m more alarmed that some conservatives– not all, but certainly the ones on the Texas board– also want to discourage people from contemplating dissenting ideas. Thomas Jefferson wasn’t a practicing Christian? Then let’s say he was of lesser import as a Founding Father, even though he authored the Declaration of Independence. The man who wrote most of the Federalist Papers and the Constitution, Alexander Hamilton, actually supported a strong, centralized government? Let’s just say that’s not true, and ignore 200 years of scholarship, and say he was a small-government person, so we can keep uttering the phrase ‘Federalist Papers!’ when we shout at liberals. Let’s make up whatever we like, and say that’s true, and say that anyone else who thinks different is just wrong.

  5. 

    More likely, it will just continue to water down the collective brainpower of our nation, leaving the well-educated Northeast & California to keep subsidizing the less-educated south and Midwest.

    When, Texas, when will you make good on your promise to secede??? The rest of us are eager to get you off our backs and get on with living in the 21st century.

  6. 

    “Given the massive size of the Texas public school system, the curricular changes ordered by the Texas Board of Education are likely to influence textbooks used all across the nation.”

    What puzzles me is that, at less than 10% of the population, Texas is not that massive. Other State Boards of Ed. are simply free-riding on the work done in Texas. Rather than giving non-Texans authority over what Texans choose to read, shouldn’t those with competing views … um, compete? Surely CA or some inter-governmental agency from MA, NJ, and NY could put their stamp of approval on alternative textbooks.

    This is not to say that I agree with all the decisions (you should see the science textbook debates). I do, however, believe in federalism.