Earlier this week, the Left Wing Echosphere was atwitter at the news that a Louisiana school eligible for vouchers had a fundamentalist religious science agenda that teaches, among other things, that the Loch Ness Monster is real and its existence refutes evolution. “Oh, Woe!” they cried, “our tax dollars are going to teach students this rubbish!”
Now never mind that, with hundreds of schools eligible for vouchers, you’re almost certain going to find some that are run by whack jobs. I’m sure there’s a school out there that will teach that Marxism works. The more important point, which I hinted at on Twitter, is expanded on by Neal McCluskey.
First, no matter how loudly government-failure deniers might protest — the government is omnipotent, dammit! – government schooling does not overcome religious belief. The latest Gallup poll assessing views on human origins came out a few weeks ago, and found as it has since 1982: The vast majority of Americans believe that God created human beings, and a plurality believes that God created us in our ”present form.” Only 15 percent hold that human beings evolved without any divine involvement. And this is with roughly 85 percent of students attending public schools.
Next, take a look at overall science achievement. According to the latest National Assessment of Educational Progress results, only 32 percent of U.S. eighth graders are “proficient” in science. And private versus public schools? 43 percent of private school students are proficient, versus 31 percent for public schools. A significant part of the difference is likely that private schools tend to serve better prepared kids, but the data certainly doesn’t suggest that public schooling beats private when it comes to science instruction.
Finally, there’s the reason government schools are so inept at teaching science: All people, no matter what their beliefs, are forced to support public schools — a perfect recipe for wrenching conflict. To avoid war without end, some 60 percent of high school biology teachers gloss over the mega flash-point that is evolution. The result is that no one, no matter what their beliefs, gets coherent biology instruction.
When discussing vouchers, liberals like to pretend there is some system of idealized perfect schools that we are draining money away from. This is simply not the case, especially in the low-achievement state of Louisiana. Bobby Jindal has seen the state of Louisiana schools and decided that tweaking it at the edges is simply not an option. A game changer is needed.
An unfortunate side effect is that few schools won’t teach science. Well, guess what, friends? The public schools aren’t teaching science either. Many, if not most, of the students in the public schools are as ignorant about evolution, cosmology and astrophysics as if they’d been educated in a fundamentalist rain barrel. You can site bad examples from the private sector all day; I will site the overall massive improvement in all phases of education, including science, that the private system has over the public system.
When it comes to policy, we can’t get bogged down in letting the perfect be the enemy of the good. We have to look at the big picture. And the big picture is that Louisiana’s public schools are not cutting it in any dimension: science, reading, math, you name it. Maybe the great voucher experiment won’t produce the stunning results its supporters think it does. But we’ve got to try something other than pouring more money into the same rathole. And there are very good reasons to believe that this particular something is a good thing.
There’s one other point and it’s the one McCluskey makes last: the current public furor over teaching evolution in our schools. The libertarians have been talking about this for some time, saying we could diffuse the evolution debate by privatizing schools. I didn’t agree at first but am now coming around to that point. Half of Americans do not believe in evolution. I’m beginning to think that at least part of that is because of the deliberate politicization of the science. There is tremendous political benefit in making science a point of contention, and not just for the Religious Right. Whether portraying ones self as a stalwart against evil secular atheists or a stalwart against dogmatic religious fundamentalists, the evolution controversy empower politicians. It is always the case: when the politicians manage to divide us against each other, both sides win. If you think that the Democrats would rather the evolution issue go way, you simply don’t understand how the political mind works.
Perhaps, by moving science out of the public sphere, we can take some of the ardor out the debate. We can stop the acceptance of evolution from being absurdly equated with being a Democrat. And, in the long run, I think that will better for the science as well as the schools.