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A Liberal Perspective on Brooklyn’s Arabic Academy Brouhaha

Conservative media outlets like the New York Post have led the charge against a controversial Arabic-themed public school planned for Brooklyn, the Khalil Gibran International Academy. But, Richard Kahlenberg argues in a compelling New York Times Op-Ed, there’s reason for liberals to be wary as well:

The late Albert Shanker, the president of the American Federation of Teachers, once famously said that the rationale for public schools was to teach children what it means to be an American.

At their core, in free democratic societies, schools are meant to develop children who will grow up with critical minds to be productive employees and tolerant, independent-thinking citizens. But in America, given our diversity, Shanker believed that public schools should provide a common education to children from all backgrounds that teaches not only skills but also American history, culture and democracy. Public schools, to him, were critical in this process of Americanization.

Keeping Shanker’s point in mind, there are principled reasons to be concerned about the Gibran school that are not simply bigoted. Jonathan Zimmerman, who teaches history and education at New York University, has likened opposition to the school with anti-German hysteria during World War I, when state legislatures passed measures barring or restricting German language classes. But there is a significant difference between teaching Arabic in a public school — something all Americans should support — and creating a school dedicated primarily to the study of Arabic language, history and culture.

Kahlenberg says that this need to foster a common American identity is the same reason that liberals oppose government vouchers for private schools.

Indeed, the right-wing New York Sun used the controversy to promote one of its favorite hobbyhorses: vouchers. The Sun editorialized:

A taxpayer-funded Arabic school would only underscore the injustice of allowing one group of parents to educate their own children in a school that elevates their language, civilization, and religion at taxpayer expense, while depriving other parents of the same choices. Our test for whether all of the parties to this controversy are standing on principle will be their position on vouchers.

To reiterate: As articulated by Kahlenberg (channeling Shanker), the liberal position is that our school system “should provide a common education to children from all backgrounds that teaches not only skills but also American history, culture and democracy.” The conservative position, as articulated by the Sun, is that we should subsidize parents who want “to educate their own children in a school that elevates their language, civilization, and religion at taxpayer expense.” In other words, we have a clear choice between E Pluribus Unum and E Pluribus Pluribus.

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