What's the Lower Boundary for What America Considers 'Education'?

More than half of the states in the US have or are considering voucher systems that let parents take tax money to pay for religious instruction. So: What's the lower boundary for considering something "education"?

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A review from Politico indicates that more than half of the states in the U.S. have or are considering voucher systems that let parents take tax money to pay for religious instruction, including teaching creationism. Which begs the question: What's the lower boundary for considering something "education"?

Conservative groups have been effective at lobbying state governments to allow  vouchers for "school choice," as Politico's Stephanie Simon explains. According to Simon's data, the 20 states at right have approved voucher legislation (the lighter colored states are not active, pending the resolution of lawsuits). Among the schools that are receiving vouchers are religious institutions, many of which are explicit about rejecting evolution and espousing creationism.

It isn't clear what the scale of the public funding of these schools might be, but Simon puts the number of recipients of vouchers and similar tools at 250,000 nationally. Simon points to an online index of schools receiving public money that explicitly teach creationism, some 300 as of January 2013. Religious institutions are exempt from federal educational standards like Common Core.

My bias: Creationism is not science, and there is enormous value in teaching kids the rational process through which science determined that the world was not created by a divine power. I see the value of public education spending as being to establish a baseline of common and essential knowledge and, while I recognize that the things I think are important (math, logic, the scientific method) are not universally prioritized, I think that there is value in determining minimums for what children learn for them to be knowledgable participants in society.

That belief is obviously not shared by everyone. "If you want very rigorous evolution instruction, you should be able to choose that," the Cato Institute's Neal McCluskey told Politico, "but you have to let other people choose something else." McCluskey uses as evidence the idea that even public institutions have watered down their science lessons in the face of pressure from religious opposition. "If every family could choose a school that reflected its values," Simon summarizes McCluskey as saying, "no one would have to sit through 'milquetoast' lessons aimed at the mushy middle."

There are really two issues. Should parents get to decide what parts of common knowledge their children are exposed to? And, should the state pay for those kids to learn things that are arguable or false? The Supreme Court answered the second question, as Simon notes, ruling in 2002's Zelman v. Simmons-Harris that voucher programs don't violate the First Amendment separation of church and state. And McCluskey has an answer to the first question: Yes, parents should get to decide what their children learn.

One of the new fronts in the business-versus-far-right war raging in conservative politics is over education. Businesses support Common Core, a new set of federal principles meant to ensure that kids know certain math and reading skills. Far-right and religious conservatives oppose the curriculum, for a variety of rational and irrational reasons. (Among the fears: the government is "indoctrinating" children.) But business sees it as essential to the economic future of the United States that children have a shared set of tools and understanding. The head of the Phoenix Chamber of Commerce called protecting Common Core — and that shared knowledge base — "our No. 1 issue," according to Politico.

The entire point of Common Core is to establish that baseline. Maybe it's the wrong place to draw it. But for there to be an informed public that is prepared for the modern workplace and prepared to participate in educated democratic debate, there needs to be some standard. Bespoke educational programs allowing either "very rigorous evolution instruction" or unscientific Biblical teaching is a bizarre standard to set for a country and a weird thing for all of us to invest in. The Chamber of Commerce appears to agree.

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