A 21st Century Solution for American Morality
Wednesday, December 18, 2019
December 20, 2019
I am writing to highlight an emerging solution to the national dilemma that America is confronting. To make the benefits of this solution clear, I have to begin by briefly flashing back to the 19th Century.
When the founder of American public education, Horace Mann, first popularized the notion of government-run school systems in the mid-1800s, his central aspiration was to engender civic character and social unity. Yet it is painfully evident that America may have never been more divided socially, politically and culturally than we are today. After a 130-year run in which government school systems have been the dominant form of education for 77+ percent of the school-age population, we can safely conclude that Mann’s aspirations – while laudable – have not materialized.
I realize that some may disagree with this observation, but consider the national debates on everything from poverty, violence prevention, immigration, health care, LGBTQ rights, environmental protection, homelessness, slavery reparations, abortion, K12 education, higher education, even the basic merits of free enterprise democracy versus socialism. Consider the way in which Americans use social media as a venue for casting dispersions and making open threats. Consider the societal discord.
These conflicts don’t just illustrate partisan politics – they reveal sharp disagreements over the basic values that should animate American society today. What do these behaviors and debates say about the effectiveness of our public school systems in instilling a strong national character and bringing social unity?
If you agree with me that public school systems are struggling to accomplish the #1 priority that they were created to accomplish, what do we do now?
Let’s look at the basics. Public education operates under the U.S. Constitution, which prohibits the government from establishing or favoring religion while protecting the rights of all Americans to practice the faith of their choosing. We must respect this separation of church and state.
At the same time, we cannot ignore the fact that education must promote morality – a set of principles that determine right and wrong. If public education does not promote morality, it provides no means by which Americans can agree upon what is good and bad behavior, which is the basis for the rule of law. If we cannot distinguish between right and wrong, we put at risk the fundamental dignity, safety and health of American citizens. So we must have a public education that engenders morality in an era where Americans are divided over what constitutes that morality.
I am convinced that, because of their basic structure, public charter schools provide a way forward.
When a charter school is established, a group of educators and parents are setting forth how they will educate students under a charter agreement. The agreement is authorized by a public agency, which is responsible for ensuring the basic safety, health, and well-being of students. The agreement allows for the school community to determine for itself how students will be educated. The agreement governs how the school operates in a manner that can be enforced by its authorizing district.
By leaving the determination over how public schools educate students up to educators and parents within each charter school, we can redefine public education to support each community’s principles of what constitutes morality. But to accomplish this aspiration, we must grant each school the autonomy to determine how it will educate its students.
Public charter schools operate under state charter laws. Most are authorized by school districts. All are overseen by a site governing board. They cannot indoctrinate students in religion. They must open enroll students and operate free of charge. But they can respect the moral beliefs of their parents and students by educating students on the prevailing virtues upon which many members of the school community agree. If a family does not believe in the education that is being provided, they can voluntarily choose a different school.
So charter schools support plurality by offering a variety of distinct and coherent choices to a diversity of families. Charter schools empower parents to find public schools that reflect their values as to what constitutes right and wrong. Charter schools give parents the “agency” and the voluntary right to choose the public school that reflects what they want.
America is the most diverse nation on earth. Families in every neighborhood and community subscribe to different social norms, cultural values, and political beliefs. Increasingly, there is no overarching consensus within the geographic boundaries of school districts with locally elected boards. Electing board members who represent special interests is not an answer.
It is impossible for districts to deliver one uniform education for all of their residents. One-size-fits-all simply will not work. But districts can authorize a variety of schools that, collectively, offer all families within their district boundaries access to the quality choices that they want for their children and youth.
Charter schools that do not meet parents’ needs and preferences lose students and may not be renewed under their charter agreement. Likewise, traditional school parents and students can opt out of schools when those schools fail to meet the needs of students or communities. Charter schools that do meet parents’ needs and preferences thrive and multiply. This responsiveness to families makes charter schools unique.
Thus, all districts should authorize a variety of distinct, quality choices in the form of public charter schools. It is the only way to serve all of the families that reside within their boundaries. And it is the only way to foster morality in the United States of the 21st Century.
For these reasons, we should support the growth of public charter schools.
Benjamin J. Lindquist