Here we go again. In a bitter 6-4 vote, before a standing-room-only crowd, the Kansas Board of Education adopted new curriculum standards last week that cast doubt on the theory of evolution. Republican board member John Bacon hailed the vote for doing away with "a lot of the dogma that is taught in science class today." Democrat Janet Waugh countered that the changes undermine science. "We're becoming a laughingstock, not only of the nation, but of the world," she said.
Many Kansans are getting a sense of deja vu. Conservatives on the board enacted similar standards in 1999, only to have the changes repealed after they lost the majority in 2000. Liberals hope for another victory when the board comes up for re-election next year
Whatever one thinks of the theory of evolution, there's a larger issue at stake. The dispute in Kansas isn't ultimately about the merits of the theory of evolution, or whether all the alternatives are, as opponents argue, based on religious faith. The bigger fight is about who gets to impose their beliefs on whom. It's just the latest symptom of a deeper illness that necessarily afflicts a school system where all the educational decisions are made by government bureaucrats.
Imagine you live in a town where you are required to pay several thousand dollars of taxes each year into a public fund that is used to buy food for the entire community. There is a publicly elected "Menu Board" that determines each year's offerings. You wanted rye this year? Sorry! The Board voted for Wonder Bread. Again! You could, in principle, opt out of the public food system and buy rye, pumpernickel, or seven grain oat-nut crunch at a fancy private store. But you've already paid thousands in taxes, and can't afford to pay twice for everything you eat. The Menu Board picks it. You eat it.
Imagine the controversy. Vegetarians ("You'll get lentil loaf and like it!") will lock horns with the Atkins lobby ("You can have my bacon when you pry it from my cold, dead fingers!") to wrest control of the Menu Board. The kosher set will rail against shrimp-lovers; Mormons will fight against the Starbucks crowd; Hindus will agitate against the forces of barbeque.
Public school boards and curriculum committees are like menu boards for our children's minds. Isn't what we teach our children more important than what we feed them? Bitter and divisive conflict over curriculum is inevitable. Evolution is to creationists what pork is to Muslims.
The question we should be asking is not whether intelligent design theory deserves a place in the science curriculum, but, rather, why we do education this way in the first place. We live in an incredibly diverse society, and there's no way we're all going to agree, even if some of us really are right about the best way to do things. Suppose you knew with absolute certainty that there was one objectively best diet. Would that justify forcing shrimp down unwilling throats? Why treat schools differently?
One simple solution to conflicts like the one in Kansas is to give more control to parents through a system of school choice. Parents would then be free to put their children's education in the hands of schools that reflect their beliefs, not the beliefs of school boards, curriculum committees, and the teachers unions.
It might also provide our children with better education. Defenders of evolution should take the theory of natural selection to heart. Darwin said that the competition among animals causes the fittest animals to survive and reproduce in higher numbers, leading to a steady improvement in animals' adaptation to their environment.
Could we unleash the same forces in our education system? Right now, many poor kids see the opposite trend: they're in bad schools that seem never to improve, they aren't allowed to leave, and their schools are never held accountable. School choice would change all that: the most effective schools would attract more students and expand, while less effective ones would lose students and eventually go out of business. Over time, the quality of our schools would steadily improve. But such beneficial competition can't happen if the state imposes the same curriculum on everyone. No variation means no evolution. No wonder our schools are so dismal.
School choice would kill two birds with one stone: parents would bicker less while kids would learn more. We may never agree on the theory of evolution, but surely we can all support that.
Will Wilkinson was born in Independence, Missouri. He is a policy analyst at the Cato Institute in Washington, DC. Timothy B. Lee is an editor at the Show-Me Institute in St. Louis. This article originally appeared in the West End Word.