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The Problem Is the Schools


I’ll bet Michael Newdow doesn’t care if private schools have kids say “under God.” Newdow is the father who sued the government school district near Sacramento, California, because his daughter’s school begins the day with the Pledge of Allegiance, which contains those words. An atheist, Newdow objects to the school’s espousing a religious idea he doesn’t share.

But notice that he sued no private schools. Of course not, you’ll say. His daughter doesn’t go to a private school.

That’s my point. With a private school, Newdow can avoid entanglement with beliefs he does not share simply by abstaining from patronizing it. He can’t do that with a government school.

The law says he must educate his child. He does not have to send her to the government school to which the bureaucrats assign her. He can send her to private school, or he can home-school her. But if he does either of those, he is penalized: he continues to be taxed to support schools that he does not use and that offend him. If Newdow could have fully disengaged from the government’s schools he never would have filed his lawsuit. But he cannot disengage.

Unfortunately, he filed the wrong suit. He would have made a real contribution to liberty and freedom of conscience had he challenged the system that taxes him for schools whether his children use them or not.

This case, in which the U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals said the school’s use of the Pledge of Allegiance is unconstitutional because of the reference to God, yet again demonstrates the poisonous consequences of government control of education. When government runs schools, disagreements that which would otherwise be easily handled without acrimony become bitter conflicts. There is but one source of the conflict and it is not religion or atheism. It’s the use of coercion, taxation, to finance schools. End that, and this conflict evaporates like water on a hot sidewalk.

The same would be true of all the conflicts that have plagued the schools in recent years, such as sex education, controversial literature, the dumbing down of the curriculum, and politically correct history. So much time has been wasted trying to resolve those issues. Committees have been created. Studies have been undertaken. Compromises have been proposed. In the end, some people have been left resentful that something they don’t like has been imposed on them and their children.

The acrimony was unnecessary because the solution was plainly in view. End the coercion.

How ironic. Good parents everywhere teach their children not to hit others and not to take their belongings without permission. We tell our children those things well before they are old enough to understand, because we know intuitively that early exposure to morality will set them on a good course in life.

We teach those simple ethical precepts over and over. And then we make hypocrites of ourselves by violating them. We finance schools by taking people’s money without permission. Should they refuse to submit to that taxation, we take their homes and even imprison them. If a child should be precocious enough to ask why, most of us would say, “That’s different.” That’s a rotten answer.

Let’s leave aside whether children should be pressured or forced to pledge allegiance to a flag and a nation-state. (Frankly, it exploits children.) Ignore for this discussion that the Pledge was written by a Christian socialist with the avowed intent of fostering collectivism in children. (You could look it up.)

The real issue here is not religion or atheism or patriotism. It’s liberty versus coercion, persuasion versus force. In the 19th century, state school systems were set up partly to inculcate Protestantism in children whether their parents approved or not. This offended Catholics, Jews, and others, who often started their own schools in response. But the government still demanded that the dissenters help finance what they found offensive.

That system continues to this day. Only the prevailing belief system has changed, from Protestantism to whatever the current secular mish-mash is called. It still employs force. How can that be right or just?

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    Sheldon Richman is former vice president and editor at The Future of Freedom Foundation and editor of FFF's monthly journal, Future of Freedom. For 15 years he was editor of The Freeman, published by the Foundation for Economic Education in Irvington, New York. He is the author of FFF's award-winning book Separating School & State: How to Liberate America's Families; Your Money or Your Life: Why We Must Abolish the Income Tax; and Tethered Citizens: Time to Repeal the Welfare State. Calling for the abolition, not the reform, of public schooling. Separating School & State has become a landmark book in both libertarian and educational circles. In his column in the Financial Times, Michael Prowse wrote: "I recommend a subversive tract, Separating School & State by Sheldon Richman of the Cato Institute, a Washington think tank... . I also think that Mr. Richman is right to fear that state education undermines personal responsibility..." Sheldon's articles on economic policy, education, civil liberties, American history, foreign policy, and the Middle East have appeared in the Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, American Scholar, Chicago Tribune, USA Today, Washington Times, The American Conservative, Insight, Cato Policy Report, Journal of Economic Development, The Freeman, The World & I, Reason, Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, Middle East Policy, Liberty magazine, and other publications. He is a contributor to the The Concise Encyclopedia of Economics. A former newspaper reporter and senior editor at the Cato Institute and the Institute for Humane Studies, Sheldon is a graduate of Temple University in Philadelphia. He blogs at Free Association. Send him e-mail.