All schools offer students some kind of moral understanding; parents should have the right to choose which one
By PATRICK MCILHERAN | January 20, 2022
When a certain past-his-prime candidate for governor in Virginia last fall gaffed, “I don’t think parents should be telling schools what they should teach,” the shocker was how many progressives chose to be his backup chorus.
Terry McAuliffe choked. His many defenders revealed their souls.
Michigan’s Democratic Party huffed that schools oughtn’t teach children “only what parents want” but, rather, “what society needs them to know.”
An education professor in a Washington Post story attributed parents’ objections to a “paranoid style” of politics. He and his co-author lectured those paranoiacs that “the structure of schooling cannot simply replicate in every particularity the values and beliefs of a child’s home.” They approvingly noted that education “may well divide child from parent,” presumably if those parents have beliefs that education professors dislike.
Nikole Hannah-Jones, author of the New York Times’ “The 1619 Project” fairy tale, professed she was baffled why parents “should decide what's being taught.” The woman whose history curriculum was denounced as hogwash by eminent historians went on to declare, “School is not about simply confirming our worldview.”
All of this scoffing starts with a caricature of parents bringing chaos to schools, each ignoramus demanding a flat earth here and white supremacy there, desperately trying to replicate in every particularity the values and superstitions from which progressives want to liberate their offspring.
Which is not how parental control actually works, at least not in the segment of schooling where parents have immense control —private schools that parents choose.
Consider a Milwaukee school, Yeshiva Elementary in Sherman Park. Its purpose, according to its mission statement, is to teach elementary school children “in accordance with the ideals and aspirations of Torah as elucidated by the Sages of Israel.” This does not suggest a pick-your-own-strawberries approach.
“When it comes to living a good Jewish life, how our parents feel is important,” said Rabbi Aryeh Borsuk, the school’s director of development and advancement. “But what our tradition and our religious advisers say is very important.”
The school has about 200 students, many via the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program, which lets families apply their state school aid to independent schools. Yeshiva will accept any child, but just as a French immersion school will immerse your kids in French, so Yeshiva will immerse them in Orthodox Judaism.
“This is a building that is marching to a very specific drum,” said Borsuk. “And if you don’t want that drum, you should find a school that is marching to your beat.”
Which is what many families do. There are other private schools in Wisconsin with a different approach to Judaism. There are Muslim schools. There are Catholic schools. There are evangelical schools and hippie-adjacent secular schools. They all offer some specific understanding of the world and the meaning behind it.
Such a shared understanding of the world led Orthodox Jews to launch Yeshiva Elementary in 1989, in no small measure to attract and retain families who’d otherwise move elsewhere to find the appropriate education. Its founders asked, “‘Will we have the community we want in 10 years?’” said Borsuk, “and the answer was, ‘Only if we build a school.’”
Such a motive isn’t unusual. Horace Mann, Massachusetts’ education commissioner in the 1830s, invented American public schooling to shape society according to his liberal Unitarian vision. John Dewey, father of progressive schooling, disdained religion and natural rights, and he evangelized for schools that would bring about a society without either.
More recently, California’s schools bureaucracy peddled an ethnic studies curriculum that instructed students in an “affirmation” chant that invokes four Aztec deities. Parents sued, saying that even if bureaucrats think paganism is merely a political charade, students ought not be forced to invoke deities, especially those desiring human sacrifice. They won and the state backed down. For now.
Here’s the thing: Mann and Dewey and California’s Quetzalcoatl-invoking bureaucrats were using their community-shaping power in schools they insisted were for everyone while demanding every child attend. All claimed their form of schooling was the nonsectarian norm that would liberate children from their parents’ pernicious beliefs.
Parents naturally object.
Notice how much of the conflict about public schools centers on some meaning-of-life creed imposed in a classroom. Whether it’s Hannah-Jones’ racialism or the belief that a girl could turn into a boy on any particular day, these are not nonsectarian notions on a par with calculus. They are life-organizing belief systems competing with families’ faith traditions. They are in their way as much a religion as offered by Yeshiva Elementary. Yeshiva is just upfront about it.
Education necessarily includes messages about what children should or shouldn’t do. “The idea that there’s a perfectly blank slate from which we give to our children to make moral and ethical decisions is, to me, not true,” said Borsuk.
We can fight about which moral framework will prevail in a universal school system. Or we can separate the funding of schools from the running of schools, as Wisconsin’s school choice programs do, letting parents choose which moral tradition will inform their children’s education.
Borsuk’s tradition isn’t mine, and mine isn’t his, and neither would work for parents who favor Aztec deities. But that’s fine. This is pluralism and the American way since President Washington sent his warm regards to the Hebrew congregation at Newport.
And it is school choice, education’s version of pluralism, that will defuse the argument over who runs schools.
Patrick McIlheran is the Director of Policy at the Badger Institute. Permission to reprint is granted as long as the author and Badger Institute are properly cited.