A fortnight ago in the Wall Street Journal, the outgoing president of the American Enterprise Institute, Chris Demuth, wrote, "It is a great advantage, when working on practical problems, not to be constantly doubling back to first principles."
Public schools work on the practical problem of educating students but also, unfortunately, find themselves doubling back to first principles all too often.
Here we are again, with the case of Portland Maine's King Middle School, which as it now stands will allow its female students, some of them no older than eleven, to acquire from the school's health center a form of oral birth-control of their choosing. (It has provided condoms since 2000.)
The question dominating headlines: Is providing a complimentary array of birth control products to pre-teens a sound idea? The question of first principles that underlies the debate: What should be the primary function of our public schools?
Conservatives will tell you if you ask them--and perhaps if you don't--that public schools should teach a well-rounded core curriculum that prepares students for college and work, and that they should also impart certain values to their youthful charges. Among these are respect for authority, hard work, self discipline, the worthiness of setting goals, and a healthy patriotism.
Many liberal-minded folks will tell you similar things. Up to a point, one can find rough agreement across the spectrum concerning the mission of public schools: skills, knowledge, and values. If we stopped there, we'd see far less dispute about education. But plenty of people, on both left and right, try to stretch the first principle in various ways--for example, by expanding the purpose of school to include reproductive counseling and paraphernalia.
A limited definition of schooling avoids this trap. If King Middle School doesn't provide contraception to its students, those girls and their parents do not have their values violated in any way. They may choose to procure contraception elsewhere--most likely via a physician, clinic, Planned Parenthood, or suchlike.
Expanding the public school's purpose, however, brings on many such instances where values inevitably clash. Surely school clinics should offer remedies for ailments that occur during the school day; cuts should be bandaged, upset tummies doused with Pepto-Bismol, etc. But birth control does not fall into this category.
Which is not to say that providing birth control to 11-year-olds is per se wrong. The medical reasons for doing so are significant. But so, too, are the moral and societal arguments against. We should ask ourselves whether this debate belongs in the k-12 realm. I think not.
The same can be said about intelligent design. Those who maintain that traditional public-school biology classes must change because teaching evolution undermines their religious beliefs are wrong. They're wrong because their beliefs, while not invalid, fall outside the public-school mission. And those who attend public schools enter a bargain to subscribe to that mission, basically defined.
As we widen the purpose of public schools, we weaken them. We will surely multiply the number of families bent on finding alternatives to them. It is not far-fetched to say, after evaluating cases such as King Middle School, that vouchers offer the only hope for parents who demand a solid education for their children in schools that don't contradict their moral positions. Some parents remove their children from public schools not only because they may find better teaching elsewhere, but because they are tired of their values being undermined for reasons that have nothing to do with cognitive skills and knowledge.
Public schools must draw the line somewhere. To be all things to all people is a recipe for being nothing to anybody.