Education, Education, Education

Posted on November 28, 2011 at 11:25 am,

Today, I’m resuming the series critiquing Wayne Grudem’s book Politics According to the Bible. Today, we’re starting out on chapter 8: The Family, and covering the issue of education. We’ll also be bringing in some arguments Grudem makes in chapter 15: Special Groups, where he takes American teachers’ union the NEA to task because it takes a different view to him on education policy. Note: for the purpose of this article, I’m using the terminology of “state school” and “private school”, because the term “public school” means completely different things between the UK and the US.

Who should be responsible for education?

Grudem begins his argument by claiming that the Bible places the responsibility for educating the next generation on parents, and not on society as a whole. He cites Deuteronomy 6:4-7, which seems to me to be an instruction to the nation of Israel as a whole, and not just to those who happened to be parents. He cites various verses in Proverbs that talk about parents training their children, and some New Testament passages (Ephesians 6:1-4; Colossians 3:20-21) teaching children to obey their parents. He concludes that, because the government is not mentioned in any of these passages, that the responsibility for education falls solely on the shoulders of parents. Assuming that his conclusion is correct, he cites some cases where courts (in Germany and New Hampshire) have intervened in to compel homeschooled children to attend state schools – and considers this a worrying inversion of the principle he believes in.

Grudem does, however, allow some role for state schools, seeing them as a way of assisting parents in their task of training their children. His case here would probably be stronger if he referred back to the history of schooling in Western countries, and the factors that led state schooling to be created in the first place (basically, that charities and private schools were utterly incapable of providing the universal education that was felt to be necessary in an industrial society – something that would be even more acute in our modern information age). It would also help address one problem that arises from his position: if those of us without children bear no responsibility for their upbringing and education, why should our taxes be used to pay for or subsidise education?

Grudem’s Solution: School Vouchers

Grudem believes that the best solution for education would be a system of school vouchers: every parent would have vouchers that would pay for the cost of their childrens’ education in either the public or the private sector. He believes that this will provide several benefits:

  1. that parents would have greater influence
  2. that it would establish “healthy competition”, as the best schools would get more pupils and the worst would go under. He claims that state schooling holds the US education system back compared to other nations (even though all comparable nations I’m aware of have plenty of state schools)
  3. that it allows parents to send their kids to schools that support their parents’ moral values
  4. he claims that this would mean that children are better educated, citing the introduction of vouchers in Milwaukee – where, in the year that a voucher scheme was introduced, schools with a very high proportion of voucher-eligible children improved at a greater rate than other schools. He doesn’t say whether the study controlled for other variables that might have affected the results.

He also rejects claims that such a scheme could violate the separation of church and state if vouchers are used to send kids to religious schools.

Grudem is also in favour of other ways of increasing parental choice – such as giving tax credits for tution payments. He doesn’t, however, consider other ways of increasing parental influence, such as ensuring that schools and the government bodies that oversee them (School districts in the US, Education Authorities in the UK) are made as democratically accountable as possible.

How much say should teachers have?

Grudem claims that the reason that American teachers’ union the NEA opposes school vouchers is that

“it knows that privately run schools will do a much better job of educating children if only they can compete on an equal basis for the tax dollars that support the public schools.” (emphasis his)

So, basically, he’s saying that “teachers oppose me because they know I’m right, and that my policy will give kids a better education”. Which – unless teachers in the US have an entirely different approach to the job to those I know in the UK – goes way beyond presenting a strawman argument and into the territory of potentially libellous statements. Now, perhaps Grudem believes that the views of the NEA do not reflect those of its members – in which case, he really ought to make the distinction clear. But the vast majority of teachers I have come across want to give children a better education, and the exceptions tend to be those who have been worn down by the job. If they and their union oppose school vouchers, it isn’t because they think they’ll give kids a better education, it’s because they think that they won’t.

He does make some interesting points in his later section on the NEA – about how there are parts of the US where there is effectively a closed shop (teachers have to pay their union dues, even if they don’t join). I agree that such an arrangement is clearly wrong. However, what most strikes me about this is that it seems very odd for this to be legal in a solidly right-wing country like the US.

Grudem ultimately blames the NEA for the poor standard of education in the US (and, incidentally, he never provides any evidence for the claim that the US does worse than other comparable countries). However, these arguments seem somewhat disingenuous – he claims that the problem is that NEA-staffed state schools have a monopoly on state-funded education. He claims that this monopoly is the reason that kids from inner-city schools have poor academic achievement (surely the fact that they live in poverty is a more important factor – and one that applies across the Western world). He also claims that the reason private schools do better is because they are free of government direction and union regulation, rather than that, for example, because they spend more money per pupil (as is the case with private schools in the UK).

So is Grudem right?

For me, Grudem’s arguments fall at the first hurdle of the principle. Because he interprets the Bible in an individualistic way, he ignores the possibility that education is a responsibility for society as a whole, and that – as a consequence – government has a responsibility to ensure that every child has the chance at a good education (the purpose of government including restraining evil and promoting the good of society). Instead, he fails to justify the principle of government having any involvement in education, making his policy proposals seem to be at odds with his principles on the issue. In particular, he doesn’t explain why those of us who aren’t parents should be contributing at all to the education system.

Furthermore, his specific proposals do seem to have some holes in them. Firstly, they aren’t the only way to make schools accountable to parents – in fact, a democratic model would mean that decision-makers are directly responsible to the parents (and the rest of the local community), rather than being responsible to businessmen, who are only responsible to parents to the extent that a parent can move their child to another school (as is the case in a private school).

Also, there are some fundamental problems with the whole idea of introducing markets into the education system. Basically, it’s very difficult to get good, reliable information about schools’ performance in education. Yes, parents can make good judgements on a school’s value system, but how can they tell if the school gets good results by teaching to the exams, or by offering a rounded education? And if exam results are published, then schools can easily manipulate the league tables. Here in the UK, there are criticisms that school league tables mean that less able children simply aren’t put in for exams (hence making the school’s results look better) and that the schools deliberately choose the easiest syllabus/exam from the various examining bodies.

Also, there’s no guarantee that a school’s past performance will continue for the whole of a child’s time there. A new headteacher (or principal in the US), a change of teaching staff, a change in intake, or (for private schools) a change of ownership could all change the quality of education, and by the time it becomes apparent, several years’ worth of intake will have been affected. Such problems are inherent in a system that is dominated by the concept of parental choice.

All of which is to say that Grudem’s preferred policy of school vouchers may well work in practice in some contexts. But it’s a very long way from being the only education policy that is consistent with the Bible, and it’s very far from proven that it would deliver the best educational outcomes. Which makes it somewhat disappointing that Grudem portrays it as both.

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