Neal McCluskey, director of the Center for Educational Freedom at the Cato Institute, sits down with us to discuss his essay, “Toward Conceptual and Concrete Understanding of the Impossibility of Religiously Neutral Public Schooling.” The piece was published in the Journal of School Choice in 2018.
Jason Bedrick: Welcome back to EdChoice Chats. I’m your host, Jason Bedrick, director of policy at EdChoice. This is another edition of our Big Ideas series. Today, I’m delighted to be joined by Neal McCluskey, director of the Center for Educational Freedom at the Cato Institute and, full disclosure, my former boss.
Jason Bedrick: Neal, welcome to the podcast.
Neal McCluskey: Well, thanks for having me. You’re doing a great job.
Jason Bedrick: I should be telling you that, but I don’t have to anymore because I don’t work for you.
Neal McCluskey: No more need to suck up to me.
Jason Bedrick: Yeah, exactly. Today, though, the topic of our discussion is going to be Neal’s essay, “Toward Conceptual and Concrete Understanding of the Impossibility of Religiously Neutral Public Schooling,” which was an essay that was published in the Journal of School Choice in 2018. Neal, let’s start with this. We often here that public schools are described as the foundation of democracy. They’re a neutral place where people of all races and religions can come together and learn in harmony. What’s wrong with this description?
Neal McCluskey: Well, there are a lot of problems with the description. I won’t get into too much detail on all of them. The first problem is this idea of a bedrock of democracy. People often say that, and they don’t actually define what democracy is. They don’t actually examine whether the United States is supposed to be a democracy.
But let’s just take that to mean that if we didn’t have public schools, we wouldn’t have a country in which the people are ultimately sovereign, the people make decisions about who their leaders are, in some cases the people will decide directly what public policy should be. The general notion is that if we didn’t have public schools, that we wouldn’t have any of that. That is, first of all, historically, just extremely dubious, mainly because you can see lots of very important things for our “democracy” that happened in the absence of public schooling. I think a lot of people are under the impression that public schooling as we have it today was widespread maybe from day one. The first colonists arrived, or we had the Declaration of Independence, and that year everybody had a public school. The reality is public schooling wasn’t common at all, and nothing like we think of it today, probably until you get into the late 19th century.
We didn’t have these kinds of schools, but yet we had things like the Declaration of Independence that laid out not just why we were independent or that we were going to be independent, but it laid out the philosophy for the politics and the governance of the country, and that it was based fundamentally in liberty. We have this right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Then we have a Constitution that is created that really sets in stone the separation of powers that are supposed to ultimately protect liberty. I should also say we have lots of states that had democratic government and counties that had democratic government in the absence of public schools. This idea, first of all, that they are the foundation of our democracy just doesn’t hold up to any historical scrutiny.
Then there’s this other idea that goes with this that you see in people like Horace Mann and others who were big proponents of public schooling before it was widespread, this idea that, well, see, if we have public schools, we’re creating unified citizens, that these are places where people go to learn common American values and that. If you go to a public school, you learn that you should vote and volunteer in your community. People who were founders of the public schooling system, like Horace Mann, also thought that public schools are where we teach a common morality, common values that would also unite all people. As I think we’re going to discuss in greater detail, clearly the historical evidence is that is not what public schools did.
Jason Bedrick: Let’s dive into the historical evidence. What is the origin of government involvement in education in the United States?
Neal McCluskey: Right. This is something of a disputed point. A lot of people will say… If you read many of the people who through American history were trying to get Americans to adopt public schooling, government providing schools for all people funded by taxes, a lot of them will say we really did have public school starting in about 1647 with something that’s called the Old Deluder Satan Act in Massachusetts, where the Massachusetts Bay Colony, they said all towns of 50 to 99 people had to have somebody to educate students in basic math and reading, and if you had 100 or more families, you also had to have a grammar school. The grammar school was supposed to prepare people, really, to go to Harvard, in other words, to prepare mainly clergy, but also some lawyers and other civic leaders. That education would have been heavy in Greek and Latin, things like that.
But people say, look, this is the beginning of public schooling in America, and ever since then, we’ve had this ongoing evolution of perfection of citizens and education by more and more state provision of education. By state, I mean government.
Jason Bedrick: Right, but let’s just pause for one second. You just ran right over the title of this law, or the law as it’s known today, the Old Deluder Satan Act. You would think it would be the Public Education Act or the Educate All Kids Act or No Child Left Behind or something like that. Why is it called the Old Deluder Satan Act?
Neal McCluskey: I can’t believe I forgot to say that. I give a briefing here three times a year to classes of interns, and I always make a big deal about the name Old Deluder Satan Act because nobody gives laws cool, ripping names like Old Deluder Satan Act anymore.
Yes, it was called the Old Deluder Satan Act, although I don’t actually… If you look at it, it’s probably not the official name, but that’s what everybody calls it, because it lays out in its preamble, and it’s a very short act, but in the preamble, it basically says, look, we’ve got to have schools for people in this colony because they need to be able to read the Bible, because if they can’t read the Bible and if they can’t understand the sermons of their fairly erudite clerics, understanding this was a Puritan colony, in many ways it was sort of theocratic, but what they said is, “You have to educate kids to read because if they can’t read the Bible, if they can’t understand the sermons that they’re hearing, they will be tricked. They will be deluded by Satan.” It had an overtly religious mission, these common schools, these public schools, if you want to call them that. That was to equip people to not be fooled by Satan and go off the proper moral pathway.
Jason Bedrick: Which is to say that public education in this country has explicitly religious roots. That was, in its first conception, the primary purpose of education, or at least the public involvement in education, was to ensure that citizens had a religious education.
Neal McCluskey: The extent to which the Old Deluder Satan Act can be seen as the beginning of public schooling or is the germ of public schooling in this country, yes, it had an explicit religious connection. It’s also very important to understand that the Old Deluder Satan Act was restricted to the Massachusetts Bay Colony. We saw very few other colonies adopt anything like it. Even in Massachusetts, adherence to that law died off pretty quickly, so I dispute that it’s actually the beginning of public schooling.
But if you want to look at it that way, clearly there’s a religious connection, an overt primary religious connection. If you look at education for most of American history, there was an expectation that religion would be central to education, whether it was public or private, there was a belief that you couldn’t have education absent religion because religion explained so much of what it is that exists in the world that we all exist in, and provided the essential guidelines for how one should live their life.
Jason Bedrick: Over time, there were a number of shifts in how education was delivered and what was seen as the primary purpose of education. The classical grammar schools made way to schools that focused more on practical skills education, and then you have the rise of the common school movement, which was taking place at the same time as you have a rise in Catholic immigration to the United States. These two phenomenon, the rise of Catholic immigration and the common school movement, interact with each other in some interesting ways. Why don’t you discuss that a little bit?
Neal McCluskey: Yeah. I think most people would probably agree that we can set the beginning of the common schools movement, or a movement for what we now call public schools, in a form we would start to recognize as really 1837. That is when Horace Mann, the so-called Father of the Common School, becomes the first secretary of the state Board of Education in Massachusetts. Interestingly, for the historical part of this, one of his big lamentations is that the common schools that may have once existed in Massachusetts had really gone into disrepair, essentially disappeared, which directly contradicts this idea that they started with Old Deluder Satan Act and it’s been a nonstop evolution of greatness ever since.
He says, “Look, we need to have common schools to teach common virtue.” Virtue is a term that’s used a lot. What’s really important to understand is the first conflicts over this, because people in Massachusetts all more or less agreed that religion was central to it, the initial conflicts were actually among Protestants. I’m not a theologian, and so I’m probably going to characterize some things in ways people will say, “Well, that’s not quite right.” But you ended up, at first, having conflicts, and Charles Glenn writes about this a lot in Myth of the Common School, an essential book for anybody who wants to know about this.
But the first conflicts were actually among different Protestants, where they said, “Look, what you want, Horace Mann, is you’re saying you want schools that have a lowest-common-denominator Protestantism that we can all maybe agree on, or at least not disagree on, because we remove any of the things that different denominations may think are crucial dogma. We take those out, and then no one will have something concrete that they object to.” A number of these people said, “Well, that’s not satisfactory education. If you remove the dogma that we as Baptists, or whoever it is, think is crucial, that education is no longer acceptable to us because the crucial part of our religion is gone.”
Interestingly, they then went on to accuse Horace Mann of de facto trying to create public schools that were consistent with his religion. Horace Mann was a Unitarian. What’s really important to understand is ultimately the major religious battle is between Catholics and Protestants, but public schooling is inherently problematic for any religion. These first arguments were all among Protestants.
You get into the early to mid-1840s, then you start to have a lot of Catholic immigration, and obviously there’s a lot of history among Protestants and Catholics where they don’t get along. That becomes the big flashpoint. The public schools are teaching this lowest-common-denominator Protestantism, but that’s still problematic for Catholics. In particular, Catholics and Protestants use different versions of the Bible, and what’s really important for Catholics is they get the interpretation of the Church hierarchy in their Bible telling them, “This is the proper interpretation of all these different parts.” Protestants generally don’t like that.
If you want the public schools to be kind of neutral, we’re going to talk about they can’t be neutral, but kind of neutral, Mann says, “Look, we’re going to include the Bible in education because all Protestants think that’s important, that it’s really crucial, but it can’t be with commentary.” I don’t actually think he said it can’t have commentary because he was anti-Catholic, although there’s certainly anti-Catholicism throughout a lot of this, but it’s because if there’s any commentary, automatically you get different sects starting to get the teaching of religion that’s more in line with what they want than others, and the whole idea of common schooling falls apart.
Now you have a major religious group coming in who says they have to have the commentary; it’s essential to their religion. Horace Mann and the public schools are presented with a huge problem. There are also problems with the public schools teach things in their readers and other pedagogical devices that are anti-Catholic. But this inability to provide a system that’s equal for Catholics becomes the biggest religious problem for the public schools, but not the only one.
Jason Bedrick: So, Catholics, in some sense, are asking… They want their views represented in the school system as well, and there’s a number of different approaches they could take to it. One is to say, “Well, our tax dollars are funding your Protestant schools. You call them common schools, but let’s be honest, they’re Protestant. So, your tax dollars should fund our schools as well.” The Protestant establishment responds basically by enacting Blaine Amendments all across the country, named after James Blaine, a senator from the state of Maine, Continental Liar from the state of Maine, as he was known at the time, at least among Catholics. The Blaine Amendments block public dollars from flowing to sectarian schools, which was essentially a euphemism for Catholic schools.
Another thing they asked for is “OK, well, if you’re not going to fund our schools, if we’re going to use these common schools, then let’s just not have the Bible in the school at all since we have a disagreement over what’s even in the Bible, not just the commentary, but which books are included in the Bible.” The Catholic Bible and Protestant Bible are mostly the same, but they are different. There are some different books that are either in or not in the canon. That leads, in some cases, to literal fights. You called it a battle before. Why don’t you describe the Philly Bible Riots of 1844?
Neal McCluskey: Yeah. This ends up being the problem. The Philadelphia Bible Riots are touched off directly by conflict over whether the Bible will be used in the public schools in Philadelphia and whose version. I don’t ever want to give the impression, though, that this is the only tension there. There’s lots of tension with new immigrants, conflicts over who was getting what jobs. There are theological conflicts.
Ultimately, the proximate cause for the Philadelphia Bible Riots are we have these debates among Protestants and Catholics in Philadelphia about whose version of the Bible we use. The people who are running the public schools say, “Here’s the compromise we’re going to have. We’re not going to require anyone to use the Bible here in Philadelphia, but if you do use it, it has to be without commentary.” Now, I don’t know what the thought process was there, but that is the solution most primed to create conflict across the board because we have to remember, again, that most people of this time felt religion was essential to education. You could not separate the two. There were certainly atheists, agnostics, and some people said there should be no religion at all in education, but they were very small in number.
For the most part, you had very broad agreement there should be religion and that the Bible was essential to religion, and so removing the Bible, you had a whole lot of people, especially Protestants, who got angry about this, but Catholics, too. The Protestants were saying, “Way to go, Catholics. You got the Bible removed from the schools, and we think that’s essential.” The Catholics didn’t want the Bible removed from school. They wanted to be able to use their version, but it had to have commentary. So, they weren’t satisfied either.
What this did was exacerbate already existing tensions. If people know anything about the history of Northern Ireland, you know that often the way you aggravate the group you don’t like is you march through their neighborhood, and we had marches of Protestants in Philadelphia, actually in some areas right outside Philadelphia, but who would march through Catholic areas and blame them for getting the Bibles removed, along with a whole lot of other tensions. You ultimately have one of these marches, and somebody shoots one of the marchers. Probably it was a young Catholic person who shot somebody in one of these marches. It leads to ultimately two waves of basically multi-day warfare in Philadelphia that have to be put down by, essentially, we’d call the National Guard, but bringing in the military to stop these two rounds of warfare that end up with tens of people dead, hundreds wounded, millions of dollars of property damages, churches burned to the ground, with the flashpoint being whose version of the Bible would be used in the schools that were supposed to be unifying diverse people.
We don’t, I should say, see conflict that bad again in the public schools over religion, but there was something called the Bible Wars that were in Cincinnati not long after that. In West Virginia, we have the Kanawha Textbook Wars in the 1970s. We see this repeated over and over again, but nothing quite as horrific as we saw in Philadelphia.
Jason Bedrick: After this, we have a process of secularization of public schooling over many, many years, and it’s still not a complete process. If you go down into the South today, there are still schools that are not in total compliance with state and federal laws in this regard. But generally speaking, you have the end of prayer in school, you have the end of the explicit teaching of the Bible in school. Then there are some who are trying to keep religion in school in some way, and so you’ve got this interesting idea called release time, which some I think particularly in the Northeast might be familiar with, but I think most of our listeners probably aren’t. What is release time, and how is this supposed to solve this quandary?
Neal McCluskey: Right. You’re basically getting then to the 1960s. Until the 1960s, we have nonstop conflict over explicit religion in the public schools. The 1960s is where you see Supreme Court cases that say you can no longer require anyone to say the Lord’s Prayer or any other prayer, or to read the Bible in school other than as just for this is literature. But you see really over many decades more and more dissatisfaction with the place of religion in the public schools. Even before the 1960s, where the Supreme Court at least officially has it all removed, lots of efforts to accommodate religion.
One of the things that enabled it to last longer, by the way, is Catholics ultimately set up a parallel system of education that they pay for twice. Once, they pay taxes for the public schools, the second time for this system that, by the 1960s, at its peak, enrolled 5.5 million students, or about 12 percent of all school-aged kids. So, one way we get peace is people just separated themselves.
The release time was an effort to have an accommodation where secularism, basically, of the public schools didn’t dominate all of kids’ weekday time. There was this proposal made that basically, look, you would enable… Schools would sort of shut down their education and would enable students to get religious education for an hour or two maybe once a week, or possibly more, during school time. It exists mainly in New York City now, and it’s heavily used in Utah. It’s not found many other places.
It was an idea of maybe we could get this accommodation where you can get religious instruction which has really been pushed to the side as part of a parallel part of public schooling, but it was challenged in court many times, too. It was struck down that you couldn’t actually have it in the public school because then the public school is providing resources for specific religious education. It was very problematic, even though it still exists, if you let people go to release time outside of school, what do you do with the kids who aren’t in release time who don’t want religious instruction? They tend to just have time wasted. It’s been a relief valve that some people have used and some have liked, but it is still problematic.
Jason Bedrick: Moving to today, do we still see these religious conflicts across the country today? We famously have the Scopes Monkey Trial. You’ve got a whole number of different lawsuits. You mention Engel v. Vitale, Abington School District v. Schempp, famously, the Yoder case, Society of Sisters. All of these different cases that touch on religion and schooling. But aren’t these settled? Basically, the schools today are religiously neutral. They’re an environment where students from all different faiths can come together. We had all these conflicts, but they’ve essentially been resolve. Isn’t that the case, or no?
Neal McCluskey: I think it’s what some people would like us to think, is that, well, we eventually removed religion from education, and now we have these values, moral, religiously neutral public schools that pretty much everybody is happy with. The reality is that all we’ve done is changed the nature of the religious conflict. The public schooling conflict is no longer about basically whose religion will be taught; it’s whether religion will be taught.
Many people may remember or be able to think back to the 1980s, really also part of the 1970s, when the Supreme Court essentially says, “Look, you can no longer have any sort of official religion in public schooling.” We had for a very long time a major debate about, well, should there be time set aside for prayer in school? The Reagan administration really pushed this.
People who have spent a lot of time reading about No Child Left Behind or the origins of that and the federal education policy, they may know, for instance, A Nation at Risk, which was this federal report that scared everybody into thinking, “Well, the schools are terrible because the test scores are bad.” The test scores were bad, but it was in 1983, and it was a Sputnik moment, that this report that said, “If a foreign power had done to us what we’ve done to ourselves with our schooling system, we’d have considered it an act of war.” This was a major report.
The secretary of education at the time wrote about this, and he wrote about… It was this guy named Terrel Bell. He was all upset because what Reagan did was, when they released that report, instead of talking about the report, he talked about the necessity of school prayer. That shows you how important school prayer was as an issue for a very long time, because people said it is not acceptable to have public schools that have pushed religion out.
You can go the Public Schooling Battle Map, which is something that we run at the Cato Institute. It’s had some technical problems lately because our old platform we ran it on has been put out to pasture and we now have it on a new platform. But it has hundreds of explicitly religious conflicts. Many of them are about can, for instance, a valedictorian… I’m sure almost everybody that’s listening to this has heard one of these. Can a valedictorian thank God for the success that they’ve had in school? Many school districts say no, that’s not acceptable, and so they censor these speeches. That becomes a very important religion versus free speech issue.
There are regular conflicts over what we can teach about religion in history classes. There was a big conflict in California about how the history curriculum portrayed Hindus and what Hinduism is. We’ve had nonstop conflicts explicitly about religion, and then there are lots of battles that implicate religious beliefs and religious values that aren’t always expressed in overtly religious ways. So, battles over who can access which bathrooms, which locker rooms. Battles over how we teach sex education, are very often rooted in moral values with explicitly religious bases.
Jason Bedrick: So, you’ve got this, and I highly recommend our listeners to go and look at the Cato Institute’s Public Schooling Battle Map. It’s very interesting. They do detail literally hundreds, I would guess probably thousands at this point—at least over 1,000—cases around the country in the modern era where there are these fights, and you divide it up into a number of different categories of battles. You’ve got battles over curriculum, freedom of expression, gender equity, human origins, race and ethnicity, reading material, religion—although a number of those actually touch on religion, have to do with religion—and then sexuality and gender identity. Are these conflicts mostly at the school level, or are they at the district level, the state level? Where are we seeing these conflicts today?
Neal McCluskey: Right. The total number is probably going to be up to about 2,400. I have a big backlog of battles we have to put in because we’ve just resolved our technical issues. But as of when our old platform went down, we had about 2,200 battles on there. We only labeled them as explicitly religious if there is a clear, explicit religious connection, so if somebody says basically, “This violates my religion.” That’s why a lot of them almost certainly have religious components, but we don’t classify them that way unless we’re certain about it.
Human origins gets its own category because it’s so foundational of an argument, and also many people will say human origins, even if they are supporting what some people see as creationism, they may say it’s not religious. Human origins means, basically, debates about evolution versus creationism. Going back to the Scopes Monkey Trial, did human beings evolve over millennia from less-evolved creatures, or were they created by God? Was it a 6,500-year-old process? But you have to put then intelligent design into that, that says there may not be a divine creator, but there may be some sort of creator that engineers human beings as they are now, which is why it’s not often an explicitly religious debate.
If you add all of these battles together that may have some religious connection, my guess would be you’d… I haven’t calculated it in a little while, but it’s probably maybe 1,200 or so of these conflicts. We are very careful to only state that it’s religious if we have evidence that there’s explicitly a religious connection.
Jason Bedrick: Just to be clear, this is only since about 2005, right?
Neal McCluskey: Right. I originally collected just basically news stories about values and identity debates conflicts because, frankly, I was tired of hearing people say that the public schools unify diverse people, because the broad historical evidence doesn’t support that, and the logic doesn’t ultimately support it. The logic is that if we take diverse people and we put them all in the same school and teach them all the same thing, they learn how to get along, both because they interact with people who are different on a daily basis and because we’re planting in their heads, more or less, the same beliefs. I thought that didn’t make sense because I knew the history of how long we’ve even had public schools, but we also know that diverse people don’t just give up their religion, their culture, their historical identity because somebody says, “Well, now you have to all get along,” and that the public schools will lead to conflict.
I thought, let’s actually collect information that shows that actually there is on-the-ground conflict going on in public schools. It ultimately went into a 2007 report that laid out the logic and just the evidence of all these battles that I had found, a 2007 policy analysis that talked about these things. Then I collected all these things for this policy analysis, and I continued to just collect these, really for my own use. I thought, “Well, why not put them in a format that enables people to see these conflicts, to see them categorized, to see where they are happening?”
Eventually, we put it together in this interactive map, which was kind of a painful process, especially first getting the map up. I would say we didn’t really standardize the collection, what goes where, probably until maybe 2011. That’s where you can maybe start to say we can consistently, if we wanted to look at trends over time, say where they’re consistent. But the point of the map is, ultimately, simply to illustrate how far-reaching and constant values and identity-based conflicts, including over religion, but also things that may have a moral basis in religion that people don’t express explicitly in religion, how widespread these are and to see concretely that the public schools actually lead to, often, divisive conflict because diverse people aren’t just prepared to say, “I give up on the things that are important, maybe even crucial to my identity and the identity of my children because, well, the government told me to do it, and I just want to get along.”
Jason Bedrick: We see that in most of these cases. You break out for each category the number of states in which these conflicts have appeared, and for most of these categories, you’re in the 40s. Some are in the 30s, but most of them are in the 40s. Freedom of expression, you’ve got fights, more than 500 of these battles in all 50 states. These are widespread. But again, are we seeing these mostly at the district or school level, mostly at the state level, or in all three?
Neal McCluskey: Right. Again, I actually have a whole bunch of these I now need to add to this. Since I wrote the article for the Journal of School Choice, there have been a lot that have been added since then. But we certainly see a lot of state-level battles. I think if you looked at this over time, even longer time than we have entries on to the map, more and more decision-making has moved to the state level. In large part, that’s because actually federal education policy, since basically the 1960s, dictated to states that they have to administer a whole lot of federal programs, and so they’ve taken on more responsibility and they’ve taken on more setting of standards in lots of areas—math, reading, science, social studies—at the state level.
Absolutely we see many of these conflicts occurring at the state level, and what’s important about that is to understand that that means everybody in that state is subject and part of that conflict. People will say, “Well, yes, you have maybe…” Again, I haven’t calculated the numbers in a little while, but suppose you have about 1,500 school districts that have conflicts. Well, that’s out of 13,000 school districts, so they’d say, “That’s not really that much. You’re touching on maybe 10 percent of all school districts.” But you have to understand that so many of these are state level, that everybody in the state is a part of that conflict. Often, that’s really values-central things, like how are we going to teach sex education, how are we going to teach evolution? Yes, everybody in the state is involved.
I did just recently calculate of all the districts that we have, what percentage of the population is implicated in that, and it’s almost half of the population is in the districts that we have in the map. That’s because there is a heavy bias toward districts being put in the map that also have media coverage, and you don’t get media coverage unless you have a large population. So, there are no doubt many districts that don’t get on this battle map radar because they have conflicts that never get into media that show up in Google searches or in aggregators of education news, and maybe where lots of people are dissatisfied with what the schools are teaching, maybe even are fighting against it, but that it never gets any sort of coverage in the media. The battle map is really almost certainly just the tip of the iceberg of how much these issues are affecting people.
Jason Bedrick: Some people might hear about these conflicts and say, “OK, I’m sold. It’s clear that these conflicts never really went away. We still are having conflicts over religion in education, but maybe it’s because we’re just not doing a good enough job of being religious neutral.” I should clarify, religiously neutral means neither favoring nor disfavoring any one religion, or religion over non-religion, or vice versa.
Some might say, “Yeah, OK, so we just need to do a better job of that. We need the courts to strictly enforce religious neutrality, maybe do a better job of educating people working in or overseeing our public education system of what religious neutrality entails.” But you say, “No, this is a fool’s errand because ultimately religious neutrality in education is actually impossible.” Why? Why is it impossible?
Neal McCluskey: Right. The first thing I’d say is I think that when people think it through, they would say, “OK, religious neutrality would mean neither favoring nor disfavoring religion versus non-religion.” I don’t actually think that’s how most people look at it. I think most people think, “If the public schools exclude religion, they are therefore religiously neutral.” I don’t think often that they see this problem of actually having a vacuum of religion discriminates against religion, but that is really the first level of understanding why public schools cannot be religiously neutral. There are many people who believe that nothing can be separated from religion and God—that mathematics was created by God, that our social relationships are governed by God. And so the first thing is, if you say that you can even have religiously neutral schools, there are people who say that’s impossible because God is in everything and creates everything.
It is important to understand… I talk a lot about conflict because originally my concern was people saying, “Well, if we didn’t have public schools, we’d all be balkanized. We’d be learning different things, and we’d all be separate and probably at war with each other.” I originally thought, “Well, that doesn’t make a lot of sense. Forcing diverse people to support one system of school forces them into war with each other.”
Over time, I’ve come to realize it’s equally important to understand that we have a government system and a belief that minorities, no matter how small a group, should be treated equally with people who are in the majority. In addition to causing conflicts, these public schools that cannot be religiously neutral also treat people unequally under the law. We may say, “OK, well, this group that thinks that nothing can be separated from God, they’re so small it doesn’t really matter.” There are probably not the majority of people, but we also protect minority rights, and to say, “Well, too bad if you think that. You still have to pay for schools that are based on a presumption that you can separate God from education,” we are treating them unequally under the law. That’s the first group of people you can think of. There are various Protestant denominations that think that, various adherents to Judaism, to Catholicism, to lots of other religions who believe that you cannot separate these things, and that’s the first group that is treated unequally in these supposedly religiously public schools.
Then there’s the idea that all we’re really doing is shaping minds to make good citizens, but lots of people think you cannot properly shape a mind without religion, that religion is the basis for wisdom, that religion is the basis for how you lead a proper moral life, that religion is essential to the shaping of souls. You may not say everything is intimately connected with God, but you certainly think the shaping of a young human being is related to God.
Jason Bedrick: You have a great quote from an Orthodox Presbyterian minister, Rousas John Rushdoony, who writes, “If education is in any sense a preparation for life, then its concern is religious. If education is at all concerned with truth, it is again religious. If education is vocational, then it deals with calling, a basically religious concept.” For people who believe that, to say that, well, OK, but your schools can’t actually deal with anything religious would be to say it can’t be in any sense a preparation for life, being concerned with truth, or about a vocation, which is fundamentally antithetical to their beliefs.
Neal McCluskey: Absolutely. As Ashley Berner has pointed out, it inescapably sends a message to anybody that goes to a public school where they say you can get a full education without having religion, just doing that says religion is second-class, religion is not as important as what we do here, and that your life can be just fine without any religion. We have privileged, at best I would say maybe agnosticism, over religion, the idea that, “Well, there may be a God, maybe there isn’t. I don’t know, and I can never know for sure. We’re going to just work from the premise that we don’t know.” I think that’s probably the fairest way to characterize what public schools are and what they are de facto teaching. Even if they are certainly not saying, “Well, we are agnostic places,” that is clearly what the message is.
Now, some people may say, “Actually, it feels like atheism or something like that,” but I think the most fair way to put it is agnosticism. But if the state elevates agnosticism, says, “Actually, you could do everything in your life, and religion isn’t important as far as we’re concerned. You’re going to pay for a school system that is based on that presumption,” you have automatically made religion a distinct second-class citizen and religious people distinct second-class citizens.
Jason Bedrick: Then you have got several other layers. You’ve got this nice chart on page 490 of the Journal of School Choice, where you have different layers of an onion, starting from those who believe there’s nothing separate from God and then going all the way down to subjects that just touch on religion. Why don’t you talk a little bit more about these other three layers, morality requires religion, values-laden policies and instruction, and then these subjects touching on religion?
Neal McCluskey: Yeah. The first two layers are basically saying as long as there are people who believe that you cannot separate what human beings do from religion, you have a system that cannot be religiously neutral. But then you get in the practicalities of education and of running schools, and again you see on the concrete levels of, “What are we going do today in our school,” you still cannot have religious neutrality.
The first part is the idea that morality involves religion, and what you might say is, “Well, schools don’t have to teach morality.” But many people believe, “But you’ve got to teach character.” This is essential to what Horace Mann and lots of other people who are these founders of the public schools, they said the whole point of these schools is we’ve got to create virtuous citizens with good character, because if we have a democracy where the people are in charge, and the people have bad character, well, then they’re going to do all sorts of terrible things. They’re going to vote for terrible people, they’re going to vote for terrible stuff, and we can’t have that. If the people are in charge, we’ve got to make them good.
The problem is, for many people, you cannot separate character from morality, and morality is based in religion. You need some sort of outside authority, God in this case, to set out what is right and what is wrong and how you live. If you don’t do that, then you have a problem of whatever people decide is right for them is fine. It’s relativism, basically. Then if you have relativism, then you can’t have any sort of standard of belief about what is the right character for people.
If you want to do any sort of inculcation of virtue, immediately religion becomes a part of it, and you really can’t run a school without saying, “Here’s the right way for kids to behave. It’s not OK to hit each other. It’s not OK to lie to each other. It’s not OK to take each other’s stuff.” But what do you ultimately base that in? Religion, for many people, is the fundamental grounding for those things.
Then you have values-laden policies. Other than the basics of a good person does not steal someone else’s stuff, we get into the things you see most on the battle map. How do you decide who gets to use which bathrooms? For many people, there is a distinctly religious… There are specifically religious reasons that you cannot share a bathroom with somebody who was born of a different sex than you are. There was a filing in the Supreme Court of several religious denominations… well, not just denominations… different religious groups, some Christians, some non-Christians, saying, “Look, people who believe as we do cannot be in the same bathroom changing, especially in a locker room, with someone who’s born of a different biological gender. We think that’s immoral.”
Obviously, when we talk about the origins of life or human origins, which has to be done in science class, religion is central to it. What we actually see is, in many cases, schools don’t teach either evolution or creationism because they just want to avoid that problem, but if you want to teach what’s really central to biology, religion becomes important.
Whose holidays do we get off on calendars? New York City had a very famous ongoing conflict over which Islamic holidays get to go on the calendar, because there were some Jewish holidays, some Christian holidays, and why shouldn’t they also get holidays off? At the time, Mayor Bloomberg said, “We’d love to give everybody their religious holidays off, but we couldn’t possibly do it because we’re too diverse.” Well, that is a fundamental problem with public schooling if we say, “We can’t treat everybody equal because we’re too diverse.”
Then, finally, you get into subjects that touch on religion, not just the origins of life, but how do you teach history? Because religion is part of history. How do you teach history that doesn’t make one religious group feel like they’re persecuted? What books do you assign people to read? We have hundreds of battles on the battle map that are about people objecting to books that are read, many because of the religious content in the books. Do you teach Harry Potter? There are people who say Harry Potter teaches witchcraft, and we’ve seen that challenged many times in public schools.
That gets right into what is in your curriculum. Of course, in English class, how do you teach the Bible? What do you teach about the Bible? You really can’t avoid it because it’s very important literature, no matter what you think about it religiously, but then you’ve got to talk about religion.
Jason Bedrick: If religious neutrality in public schooling is impossible, then how can we avoid eternal conflict over differing beliefs in a free and pluralistic society?
Neal McCluskey: Yeah, so the first thing I’d say we have seen is, within the public school system, and you touched on it earlier on—you’ll probably find them disproportionately in the South—some public school systems that are still really religious. One of the things we’ve seen is local control of public schools has enabled school districts to keep a kind of religious character, even though they’re not supposed to have it. But that is problematic for anybody who is in that school district that doesn’t share those religious values, so we see lots of conflict in those places.
The question is, how do we get an education system where religious people of all different varieties and non-religious people of all different varieties can all get the education they want for their kids, or more importantly, not have education they find unacceptable imposed on their kid? How can they all do that and be treated equally? The solution to that is to do basically what Milton Friedman said, which is we separate the funding and provision of education. The government can make sure that people can afford to pay for education, but there’s no reason the government has to provide it.
The reality is, if government is going to provide education, it can’t include religion because there are so many people who don’t accept any religion, and then there’s so many people who differ on the specifics of religion. Government can’t provide religion in their education, but if they’re going to provide schools, they’ve got to enable people to access religious education. What we should do is move to school choice. Give people that money, give educators the freedom to start and to run schools however they believe they should be run, to teach whatever they think they should teach, and then let people freely choose those schools. Then government doesn’t decide who gets what, who gets religion, who doesn’t get religion. Everybody gets to choose for themselves.
Corey DeAngelis and I have proposed as a legal matter that one solution may be if government is going to provide public schools, schools that people go to for free, at the very least, if it’s going to do that, those schools have to not inculcate religion, but you’ve got to then give school choice to religious people so that they can choose something that’s consistent with their values. That’s really a second- or third-best option. What we need to move to for not just religious reasons, but all sorts of other battles— cultural, identity-based conflicts we see—is a full system of school choice where money is attached to students, educators are autonomous, and free people freely interact.
Jason Bedrick: Doesn’t this just move the conflict out of the schools, but there’s still going to be religious conflict? Justice John Paul Stevens, in his dissent in the Zelman decision, which upheld the constitutionality of a voucher program in Ohio, said that his main concern, or at least one of his main concerns, was that there would be religious strife. He specifically cites the Balkans in Ireland and the Middle East. These people are now going to be in separate religious schools. They’re going to grow up separate from their neighbors who have different religions, and they might grow up to mistrust people from other religions. Isn’t that going to then increase, as he puts it, the risk of religious strife and weaken the foundation of our democracy?
Neal McCluskey: Yeah, there’s really no evidence for that. Interesting, if you look at the history of American society and the American people, what we saw was, over the centuries, lots and lots of diverse people came to this country. Importantly, we need to talk about, or at least make the distinction, many of these people came voluntarily. If you talk about African-Americans, they were not here voluntarily, and so it’s more difficult to say what I’m about to say about immigrants than African-Americans, who have a different history, although I think ultimately the same basic principles will apply.
But what we saw for immigrants, at least, was they came to this country; they often, for very understandable reasons, lived in distinct groups. They tended to live with people like themselves. We often called it ghettos, and that has, for many good reasons, negative connotation. But for people new to a society, it actually made a whole lot of sense that people basically transitioning from one society, one culture to another one, would live with people who shared their culture, shared their language, shared their religion, because that helps them to transition to a new place.
What we often saw was that even as people would move west and they would settle in different places, where diverse people would come together, if they clashed, they would just move, and they would move because that is one way to keep peace. But the way we kept peace wasn’t only by moving. What people also realized over time was that, look, we all benefit when we work with people who are different than us, and it wasn’t usually a 10,000-foot calculation of, “Wouldn’t it be good for society if I worked with people who are different than I am?”
What they realized was, “Look, I am somebody, and I’m a farmer, and I want to sell my corn. I have a much better chance of selling my corn and making more money if I sell it to people who are different than I am.” We saw commerce generally bringing diverse people together. Basically, our own self-interest, our natural self-interest, ultimately brings us together. The fact of the matter is, if you live in a society, you may have your neighborhood, your area that you live in, but you recognize that there is a broader society, and it’s easier for you to do that if you ultimately speak the same language as other people, if you share a lot of beliefs and the same sort of common courtesies and way of living, that you don’t force yourself on other people and they don’t force themselves on you.
What we see is a natural process of people, of their own self-interest, assimilating, getting together with people who are different than they are, but crucially, without doing what the schools often wanted them to do, which was sacrifice the things they thought were most important or they felt were most important to them—their religion, their culture, things that made them who they are. What we see is the way people got together was a natural process of pursuing their self-interest, part of which was becoming part of the greater society, but also maintaining things that were very important to them as individuals that made them, they felt, at least in part, who they were.
The public schools basically tried to short-circuit this natural process to say, “OK, we’re going to take all people who are different and we’re going to force them to be like, basically, the elites who ran the schools,” which were, at the risk of being too general or too blunt, but it was to make people into white, Anglo-Saxon Protestants. Lots of people, for lots of reasons, including religion, did not accept that, but still over time evolved to all be Americans while maintaining those things that were essential to them, that also made them distinct and that bring that diversity that is so terrific for Americans.
It’s great that we have lots of different religions that we can look at and learn from and maybe join as we evaluate religion. It’s great that we have lots of different foods we can choose from. The melting pot is a very real, very terrific thing, but it is terrific in spite of public schools trying to force uniformity on people.
Jason Bedrick: If we do go in this direction of freedom and pluralism, and the government, therefore, funds all forms of education, either directly through tax dollars or indirectly through mechanisms like tax credits, there are two objections, and they’re the opposite sides of the coin. On the one hand, wouldn’t that mean funding fringe religions, Satanists, cults? Where do we draw the line? On the other hand, doesn’t that just invite more government control over private religious education?
Neal McCluskey: Right. The first thing I’d say is by far the preferable way, at least from a unity and compulsion standpoint, to deliver school choice is through tax credits. We typically think of scholarship tax credits. Well, one is a tax credit where if you as an individual send your children to a private school, you would get a credit on your own taxes, essentially so you don’t have to pay twice for education, but we also think of scholarship tax credits, where individuals or corporations can donate to groups that give out scholarships. That helps people who don’t have a big-enough taxable income that they could really offset private school cost, it gives them school choice too. Of course, as you’ve written about in a Cato PA, we could do this with education savings accounts, too, where you get a credit for donating to groups that run these accounts that can be used for more than just private school tuition, but all sorts of other things.
These are important in that, first, claiming a credit is something that you voluntarily do. You don’t have to donate if you don’t want to get a credit. It’s up to you. A voucher, people say, rightly to an extent, they say, “Look, if there are vouchers, I may have provided a penny for each voucher that goes to a school that teaches things I find abhorrent, and it’s not right to compel me to have any of my money go to a religious or any other kind of school.” It could be just a school that teaches math terribly. That’s a legitimate concern of people saying, “I don’t want any of my money going to something I think is teaching something immoral.”
That’s why these credits are important. You choose whether or not, the personal credit, whether or not you send your children to private school. You freely choose that. And if you want to donate to these groups, you freely choose whether or not to donate. Then even better than that are tax-credit programs where you choose to whom you donate. If you want your money to go to Catholic schools, you can choose to donate to a diocese. If you want your money to go to a Montessori school, you could choose a Montessori group. Then you have two more layers of freedom for those funders.
The idea that we don’t want public money going to fringe groups, that’s short-circuited. It’s not really public money, as the Supreme Court has ruled. That’s private money if it’s tax credits, and nobody has to do it. They choose if it goes to a “fringe group.” Of course, the problem with having a law that says it can’t go to a fringe group is, who gets to define fringe? In a free society, we shouldn’t have government making the decision that you’re too fringe to be treated equally.
Then there is the problem of government control, and the tax credits are a much better way to deal with government control than vouchers, as well. The fear is that, look, when government funds something, they tend to attach rules and regulations to it. We’ve seen that certainly many times. We don’t want that to happen with school choice.
In particular, the threat is that if there is a religious school and they say, “Fundamental to our religion is that we have bathrooms or locker rooms that are separated by biological sex,” we don’t want a school like that being told, “Sorry, that’s discrimination, and you can’t follow your intimately held religious beliefs.” We want to avoid that sort of standardization, those sorts of regulations, and so the tax credits are better for that, too, again, because nobody is forced to fund that school. The funders make those decisions voluntarily, and that voluntarism means you don’t have to worry that somebody is being forced to fund something they find unacceptable. People have chosen to do that.
Jason Bedrick: My guest today has been Neal McCluskey, the director of the Center for Educational Freedom at the Cato Institute. You can find his essay, “Toward Conceptual and Concrete Understanding of the Impossibility of Religiously Neutral Public Schooling,” in the Fall 2018 edition of the Journal of School Choice.
Neal, thank you very much for joining us.
Neal McCluskey: Thanks for having me.
Jason Bedrick: This has been another edition of EdChoice Chats. If you have any ideas for authors you’d like us to interview for the Big Ideas series, please send them to firstname.lastname@example.org. Be sure to subscribe to our podcast wherever you get your podcasts. Follow us on social media @edchoice, and don’t forget to sign up for our emails on our website, edchoice.org. Thank you. We’ll catch you next time.