How to End the Tiresome Christmas Debate in Schools

Published December 11, 2013

Every Christmas, schools make headlines by labeling their calendars for “holiday break,” “winter solstice,” and the like instead of “Christmas break.” The occasional Scrooge-like superintendent or teacher will inevitably punish some little six-year-old for bringing candy canes with a Bible verse to school or wanting to share the story of Jesus’ birth for a class presentation.

It’s time to end this needless social conflict and ensure religious freedom and cheer for Americans of all faiths, cultures, and walks of life. It is, after all, supposed to be a season of reflection and joy. How to do this? Let families take their education tax dollars to religious schools.

It sounds counterintuitive. How do we promote social harmony if people who believe different things are allowed to separate themselves along religious and philosophical lines? Aren’t schools supposed to foster the quintessential American melting pot by bringing children with different beliefs together?

Emerging research on private and government schools shows giving people the freedom to educate children according to their beliefs actually promotes tolerance better than forcing people of vastly diverging views into conflict with each other over school policies. The irreligious are often offended at schools that let children hold prayer services, sing Christmas carols at assemblies, or post nativity scenes. The United States has long revered its tradition and laws regarding government support for religion, and for good reason: The idea is to allow everyone to believe as he wishes, and express those beliefs, without government endorsing or censuring those beliefs.

Public schools as they are now structured have the utterly impossible task of trying to please everyone. Obviously, they can’t. Calling the break “winter solstice” censors those who revere this season, yet calling it “Christmas break” assumes everyone who attends the school celebrates (or should celebrate) the religious tradition of a particular faith. Even if a certain faith is dominant in a particular community, U.S. law and tradition rightly protect those who practice minority religions. Government should not arbitrate religion. It should, instead, get out of religion’s way.

In April, the Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice published a review of all the high-quality research comparing private and government schools on a variety of measures, including social harmony. The research shows private schools foster more desegregation, social harmony, and civic engagement. Such studies typically ask students to name the group of people they dislike the most – such as the KKK, Nazis, or religious minorities – and then say whether they would let such groups exercise legally protected rights such as voting, publicly demonstrating, or letting libraries stock books sympathetic to their views. A study that examined a private voucher program in Washington, DC found voucher students were more likely than similar public school students to agree they would “definitely permit” the group they liked least to perform civic actions such as giving a public speech or running for president, reports study author Greg Forster. Studies that control for selection bias of children attending private schools confirm these results for all private school students, not just voucher students.

These Christmastide disputes are only a reminder that the system of public schools fosters intolerance and conflict in myriad areas. If we want more joyful seasons all year ’round, we have to stop demanding public schools attempt the impossible by forcing everyone to do the same thing, and instead set families free to celebrate their beliefs both in and outside of their kids’ schools.


Joy Pullmann is managing editor of School Reform News and an education research fellow at The Heartland Institute.