With the clock winding down on the 1998-'99 academic year, the public school systems of America are in a frightened defensive lineup. Now, it's not just a radical few of us who are claiming that the whole idea of state-sponsored education needs to be re-thought.
Since WORLD magazine and this column were launched in 1986, I've written several dozen pieces pointing to the continuing collapse of state education. Pedagogically, philosophically, morally, administratively, fiscally, and in terms of discipline and even facilities, the task of rebuilding America's state schools has become overwhelming.
Now, over the last several weeks, two more factors have dramatized, and perhaps even hastened, that process of collapse.
The first was the horrible shooting at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colo. The second, in a strange coincidence of timing, was the runaway response to a private (and basically secular) nationwide offering of school vouchers to 40,000 families who want more choice in their children's education.
The Colorado shooting displayed again for us all the bleak emptiness of a philosophically unanchored educational system. But at the same time, the overwhelming response to the voucher offer-1.25 million families applied for the 40,000 scholarships-showed how desperate folks have become to find a place to sink their family educational anchors.
Everybody naturally wants to provide the right remedy for whatever led to the Columbine tragedy. Educators, students, gun-control advocates, psychologists, legislators, students again, theologians, parents, columnists and commentators and counselors, sociologists, more students again, pollsters and publishers, and manufacturers of metal screening devices-all these and many more have been interviewed almost ad nauseam in the hope that someone, somewhere can shout, "Eureka! Here's the simple solution we've all been looking for but have missed until now."
But the sober fact is that no one is about to find that utopian panacea. Deep in our hearts, we all know it's not some little thing that's gotten slightly out of adjustment. It is instead something terribly basic and scarily pervasive that allowed two teenage boys to shock us with their violence. The worst part is the uneasy sense we all have that it isn't over. It may even just have begun. Sophomore Jessica Cave from the Columbine school was quite certain about it: "I think that it could happen anywhere. But I think it will happen more. Because, you know, these guys had the courage to do it and so I think there will be followers who will try it too, or copycats or whatever.... I am scared to death to go to school."
Folks who try to sort out this kind of thing from a biblical perspective know you don't grab at the quick, easy solution. You go instead to the heart of things and look for the systemic issues. In this case, the systemic issue is that we are dealing with the response of a God who is saying, in effect, to our society: "So you don't want Me at the core of your existence? You want to marginalize Me? Well, let Me show you what happens when you exclude Me, or even try to put Me on the edge of your existence." You don't have to see the result as His hand of wrath; it is simply what happens when He withdraws His hand of grace. But the cause and effect are very real.
The Columbine calamity is, of course, many small things, all of which deserve a careful society's attention. But to the extent that our culture presumes that it can repair any of the little issues without giving major attention first to the big one, we are consigned to an unending repetition of what happened in Colorado, as it did earlier in Mississippi, Arkansas, Oregon, and Kentucky. Most people sense that, and it leaves a sense of foreboding.
Against so gloomy a background, there's good news. The good news is that parents don't absolutely have to choose schools that by law are philosophically and educationally anchored in practical atheism. The sensational response to an offering by the Children's Scholarship Fund (which itself makes no claims of any particular ideological loyalties) shows that given a reasonable choice, parents will flee en masse from the collapsing state educational edifice. In New York, for example, 30 percent of the eligible population applied for the scholarships. According to Erskine Bowles, President Clinton's former chief of staff, "Other urban areas experienced a similar response: 26 percent in Chicago, 33 percent in Washington, 44 percent in Baltimore."
"I joined the CSF board," said Mr. Bowles last week, "... because I believed that these scholarships could provide immediate help to low-income children, whose childhood won't wait for reforms to take effect. But the absolutely stunning level of demand for this opportunity has unavoidable implications for the public policy debate as well."
Indeed, it does. Mr. Bowles concludes: "From now on, the debate is not whether we should have competition [in education], but how." That's a remarkable concession, but an honest one we should all appreciate. Sometimes a collapse-like that of the Berlin Wall a decade ago-is not a tragedy, but the beginning of new freedom.