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The Wall Street Journal, owned by billionaire RupertMurdoch (who also owns Fox News), runs a steady diet of anti-public school editorials. Sometimes they bash public schools. Sometimes they praise charter schools and vouchers. Sometimes they do all of this in the same editorial. While an opinion piece that expresses a dissenting opinion occasionally gets published, it’s fair to say that the WSJ does not like public schools. In my last book, Slaying Goliath, I praised retired Austin librarian Sara Stevenson for responding to every WSJ vilification of public schools.
Peter Greene responded to the opinion piece by law professor Philip Hamburger, who claimed that public schools are not “constitutional” because they suppress parents’ freedom of speech, that is, their ability to ensure that their children hear, read, and learn only what their parents want them to learn.
Last Friday, the Wall Street Journal (Fox News’ upscale sibling) published an op-ed from Philip Hamburger, a Columbia law professor and head of the New Civil Liberties Alliance, a Koch-funded pro bono firm that takes cases primarily to defend against the “administrative state.” It’s a hit job on public education with some pretty bold arguments, some of which are pretty insulting. But he sure says a lot of the quiet part out loud, and that makes this worth a look. Let me walk you through this. (Warning–it’s a little rambly, and you can skip to the last section if you want to get the basic layout)
Hamburger signals where he’s headed with the very first paragraph: The public school system weighs on parents. It burdens them not simply with poor teaching and discipline, but with political bias, hostility toward religion, and now even sexual and racial indoctrination. Schools often seek openly to shape the very identity of children. What can parents do about it?
Hamburger offers no particular evidence for any of this catalog of arguable points. Various surveys repeatedly show that the majority of parents approve of their child’s public school. The rest is a litany of conservative complaints with no particular evidence, but Hamburger needs the premise to power the rest of his argument.
So here comes Hamburger’s bold assertion:
Education is mostly speech, and parents have a constitutional right to choose the speech with which their children will be educated. They therefore cannot constitutionally be compelled, or even pressured, to make their children a captive audience for government indoctrination. Conservative talking points about public education routinely assert and assume that public education is a service provided to parents, rather than to the students or society at large. It’s case I’ve never seen them successfully make. At the same time, society’s stake in educated members is clear and the entire rationale behind having non-parent taxpayers help pay the cost of public education. In any other instance where the taxpayers subsidize a private individual’s purchase of goods or service (e.g. food stamps, housing), some conservatives say the social safety net is a Bad Thing, so it’s uncharacteristic for them to champion public education as, basically, a welfare program for parents when they want to dramatically reduce all other such programs to bathtub-drowning size (spoiler alert: they’d like to do that with public education, too).
But Hamburger has taken another step here, arguing that speech to children somehow belongs to their parents. It’s a bold notion–do parents somehow have a First Amendment right to control every sound that enters their children’s ears? Where are the children’s rights in this? Or does Hamburger’s argument (as some angry Twitter respondents claim) reduce children to chattel?
Hamburger follows his assertion with some arguments that don’t help. He argues that public education has always attempted to “homogenize and mold the identity of children,” which is a huge claim and, like much of his argument, assumes that schools somehow have the power to overwrite or erase everything that parents have inculcated at home. But then, for the whole argument currently raging, it’s necessary to paint public schools as huge threat in order to justify taking dramatic major action against them….
But “education is speech” is not the really bold part of his argument. That really bold part is where he goes on to say “therefor, parents should have total control over it.” I have so many questions. Should parents have total control over all speech directed at or in the vicinity of their children, including books, and so would I be violating a parent’s First Amendment rights if I gave their child an book for Christmas? And where are the child’s rights in this? Would this mean that a parent is allowed to lock their child in the basement in order to protect that parent’s First Amendment right to control what the child is exposed to?
Hamburger’s argument has implications that he doesn’t get into in his rush to get to “do away with them and give everyone vouchers.” The biggest perhaps is that he has made an argument that non-parent taxpayers should not have to subsidize an education system. I’m betting he’s not unaware of that.
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