BEHIND the debate over education in the United States lie deep philosophical and ideological disagreements over how and what children should be taught. The prevailing philosophy behind US public schools has been that all children should receive the same general education and that all children should graduate from high school.
The schools, it is held, should be scrupulously neutral in matters of religion and values. They are also held to be responsible for making up for the deficiencies of parents in such issues as sex education, family planning education, and drug counseling.
Supporters of this view are strong backers of the public school system. They especially include members of minority religious groups, blacks, and the secular education establishment - both academics and teachers' unions.
But there are many in the country who dispute this view of what schools are. Some believe that children inherently have different abilities, and that trying to teach all children the same thing and the same way is an exercise in futility. They believe private schools provide a fuller and more demanding education.
Others, including Roman Catholics and Protestant fundamentalists, disagree that education can or should be a secular matter, and organize religiously based private schools. Many also object to sex education that does not emphasize morality, or that they believe sanctions premarital sex, birth control, or abortion.
One important strand of the education debate is whether the state should subsidize private schools. In the 1960s, the courts universally struck down various plans for public aid to parochial schools on the grounds that this violated the constitutional principle of the separation of church and state. Other proposals for such aid were voted down in referendums. On the other hand, some state courts have also ruled that public schools must provide certain services, such as driver's education or special-educ ation programs, to students enrolled in private schools.
This issue has now resurfaced under the slogan of parental "choice" in the selection of schools. The basic idea is that if parents can select which public schools their children attend, the competition between schools this will create will give mediocre or sub-par schools incentive to improve. Advocates of private and parochial schools have taken this a step further: They argue that parental choice should not be limited to public schools, but should include any and all schools, regardless of who runs th em.
Parochial-school supporters were greatly heartened by President Bush's recent education proposals. The administration wants a $200 million package to encourage local school districts to adopt a "choice" program that includes parochial schools and $30 million to fund school-choice experiments.
"Parents are the first and foremost educators of their children and have the right to select the school of their choice," said Sister Lourdes Sheehan, secretary of education at the United States Catholic Conference, in a written statement April 19. "The money is not public-school money. It is the public's money, and all taxpayers, including parents of children in Catholic schools, have a right to a fair share of their tax dollars."
But public-school supporters are concerned that giving aid to parochial schools will siphon money away from underfunded public schools. And those who champion strict church-state separation are also upset by the president's proposals. "American taxpayers should not be forced to pay for religious instruction," said Robert Maddox, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State in an April 22 statement. "Parochial and other private schools take only the students they want to take . Only they have any 'choice' when it comes to admissions."
Advocates on both sides are already mounting campaigns to pressure legislators. The controversy could cause serious delays in enacting any federal education program, and complicate Bush's efforts to become the "education president."