Public Schooling Headed for Chaos

Published November 1, 1997

Taking his title from a line in Robert Bolt’s play A Man For All Seasons, Stephen Arons’ insightful book, Short Route to Chaos: Conscience, Community, and the Reconstitution of American Schooling (University of Massachusetts Press, 1997), considers the consequences of the radical restructuring of American public education that has been the result of Goals 2000. Arons examines how the constitution of American public schools affects the rights of conscience and the vitality of community life, presenting the case that school wars will continue to escalate so long as governments control the content of schooling.

In Bolt’s play, Sir Thomas More refuses to use the force of the state to get a favorable dispensation from the pope. When Cardinal Wolsey asks him how he can obstruct important measures of state because of his conscience, More responds that forsaking conscience for the sake of public duties is “a short route to chaos.”

Arons, a professor of legal studies at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, argues that public schools are presently structured so as to become the enemies of private conscience and the building of communities of belief. “A person who has no choice but to accept the beliefs that others have prescribed, especially where education is concerned, is likely to regard participation in community building as a sham.”

Goals 2000, for example, caused such a fundamental change in American public education that the legislation resembles an amendment to the U.S. Constitution more than a federal statute for school reform. “The fact that this program was adopted without serious public debate and without following the formal process for amending the Constitution leaves the American people with a usurpation of power that no democracy can safely ignore,” says Arons.

How, then, should public schooling be re-constituted to provide the optimal allocation of power and accountability for the twenty-first century? Not by a return to local control, which Arons sees as an unworkable compromise between conscience and power in public education. Nor by the prescriptions of Goals 2000, which he views as simply a shorter route to chaos. Nevertheless, Goals 2000 does offer a way out.

“By legitimatizing a massive shift in the power over public schooling–away from individuals and towards state and national governments–the passage of Goals 2000 has opened fundamental questions about public education that have not been adequately addressed in public debate during this century,” says Arons.

He proposes that families be allowed to choose the best schools for their children, with equal public funding provided to each child. That freedom should be guaranteed by an education amendment to the U.S. Constitution. It is time, says Arons, for ordinary citizens “to reclaim public education from political majorities, bureaucratized school officials, and the corrosiveness of discriminatory schooling. It is time to put public schooling beyond the reach of those who seek to use the power of government to manipulate the freedom of mind and spirit.”

“. . . [J]ust as citizens two hundred years ago needed a Bill of Right to secure freedom under a federal Constitution of limited powers,” he writes, “so do citizens today need constitutional protection against governments that, with Goals 2000, have gained nearly unlimited power over schooling.”

George A. Clowes is managing editor of School Reform News. His email address is [email protected].