Deep Divisions over Philosophy Buffet US Public Education ANALYSIS

Article excerpt

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-education programs, to students enrolled in private schools.

This issue has now resurfaced under the slogan of parental "choice" in the selection of schools. …