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Singing “God Bless the U.S.A.” in Public Schools

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Last week a rant about a public-schooling controversy by a conservative radio talk-show host reminded me of how differently conservatives think as compared to libertarians.

The controversy involved the Lee Greenwood song, “God Bless the U.S.A.,” which was to be sung by elementary school students during a concert at a public school in Massachusetts.

School administrators decided to change the lyrics to “We love the USA” in place of “God bless the USA.”

Parents and Greenwood himself protested the changing of the lyrics, which caused the school to then cancel the concert.

After further protests, the school relented and restored the concert and the song in its original condition. The fourth-grade students will now be given the option of singing the words “God Bless the USA” or not.

That conservative talk-show host was really angry. He just could not understand why public school students should be prevented from singing “God Bless the U.S.A.” He railed against those school administrators. How dare they keep children from singing God’s praises?

The conservative approach to resolving this type of problem, however, is totally misguided.

First of all, let’s be clear on the nature of public schooling. We call it “public” but how often do we ask ourselves what that really means? It doesn’t mean that the schools are operating like such public services as restaurants, movie theaters, and hotels, all of which are open to the public.

Instead, what we mean by “public schools” are schools operated by the government. Public schools are government schools, schools run by the state. The schoolteachers are state personnel. The textbooks are selected and approved by the state. The curriculum is set by the state.

How are public schools funded? By taxation. While such public facilities as restaurants, move theaters, and hotels rely on voluntary support for their operations, public schools rely on the coercive apparatus of the state to fund their operations.

Most important, however, especially for purposes of the song controversy, is the manner in which public schools get their “customers.” They are not like those private enterprises that cater to the public, whose existence depends on offering high-quality goods and services to the public. Rather, public schools rely on what are called compulsory-attendance laws — laws that mandate, on pain of imprisonment and fine, parents to subject their children to a state-approved education.

The state does provide parents a range of options within its education mandate: homeschooling, private schools licensed by the state, or public schooling. Most parents choose public schooling, but make no mistake about it: the students are there because the state forces them to be there.

So, here we have a system in which the state forces parents to send their children into a state institution to receive official state teaching, or what some might call official indoctrination.

By the way, public schooling and compulsory-attendance laws also exist in communist countries. In fact, Cuba’s communist leader Fidel Castro has long considered Cuba’s public-school system as one of his socialist pride and joys. (The other is Cuba’s government-provided healthcare system.)

Now, let’s add religion to the mix. Suppose someone proposed the following law: “All parents shall be required, on pain of imprisonment and fine, to send their children to a state institution to receive religious indoctrination.”

Presumably, most everyone — perhaps even most conservatives — would find such a law objectionable. The state should not be forcing people to submit to religious indoctrination, they would argue. Religion is an area best left to each family.

Do you see the problem, however? Here we have a system in which the state is forcing parents to send their children to a state institution to receive a state-approved education. If the state crosses the line and employs its educational system to indoctrinate children on religion, how is that different from a system in which the state is forcing parents to send their children to a state institution to receive religious indoctrination?

That’s essentially why that public school decided against having its students sing that Lee Greenwood song. They recognized that a system that forces children to attend public school shouldn’t be a system that also forces children to receive religious indoctrination. The principle is called religious liberty, and it’s been considered a core aspect of a free society for centuries.

That principle, however, angers conservatives because they want children to receive an education that teaches them about God. But what conservatives fail to realize is that their solution inevitably leaves them in the position of supporting a system in which the state is forcing children into a state institution to receive religious indoctrination.

So, what is the solution to this quandary? It’s not the conservative solution, that is, one that tries to use public schooling to indoctrinate children on God. Rather, the solution is the one that libertarians have long advocated. Rather than getting the state into the business of teaching religion to children, the solution is to get the state entirely out of the business of education.

In other words, the solution is to separate school and state, not combine religion and the state. That means a total repeal of compulsory-attendance laws and school taxes. It means no more public schooling. It means the end of all state involvement in education.

A free market in education resolves the problems that are now associated with government schooling. Parents would be free to select the educational vehicle best suited for each of their children. The market would be open to entrepreneurs to offer a wide range of educational services to parents.

Some parents would send their children to schools that teach religious principles within their educational curriculum and would undoubtedly encourage, or even require, students to sing patriotic songs that mention God in the lyrics. Others would select only secular schools.

The same applies to many other issues that are controversial in public schools. Environmental issues. Sex education. Each family would make the call. Why, some parents might even choose to send their children to schools that teach — heaven forbid! — libertarianism, a subject that, not surprisingly, is rarely, taught in public schools.

Or some families might reject formal schooling entirely, choosing to rely on (non-licensed) private schools or homeschooling associations or some other educational method that no one has even conceived.

Trying to figure out the best way to run public schools, as conservatives do, is a fool’s errand. When people render such things as religion and education to Caesar, the result inevitably is an environment of conflict, chaos, discord, and crisis. The only solution to this morass is the free market, not only in religion but also in education.

This post was written by:

Jacob G. Hornberger is founder and president of The Future of Freedom Foundation. He was born and raised in Laredo, Texas, and received his B.A. in economics from Virginia Military Institute and his law degree from the University of Texas. He was a trial attorney for twelve years in Texas. He also was an adjunct professor at the University of Dallas, where he taught law and economics. In 1987, Mr. Hornberger left the practice of law to become director of programs at the Foundation for Economic Education. He has advanced freedom and free markets on talk-radio stations all across the country as well as on Fox News’ Neil Cavuto and Greta van Susteren shows and he appeared as a regular commentator on Judge Andrew Napolitano’s show Freedom Watch. View these interviews at LewRockwell.com and from Full Context. Send him email.