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.