2021 was a rough year for public schools – particularly at school board meetings, where images of angry parents, agitated interest groups, and edgy school board members filled the airwaves.

Was this an unusually bad year for terse, testy, and sometimes physical board meetings? According to the Cato Institute’s Neal McCluskey, maybe in the raw number of incidents. But the headline grabbing incidents are just a symptom of a larger problem:

Why has 2021 been so fraught?

It has been a stew of many ingredients, but the two largest are likely COVID-19 and the 2020 murder of George Floyd by white police officer Derek Chauvin.

While pandemic discontent has not been primarily about moral values or personal identity, it has created broad parental frustration with public schools, first when many districts fought returning to in‐​person education, then when many opened with mandatory masking.

George Floyd’s murder appeared to catalyze many district leaders to put an emphasis on “equity,” which can take forms ranging from directing more resources to minority students, to ending gifted and talented programs. The goal is to ameliorate inequalities stemming from past and present racism, including decades of racist housing policies directly impacting wealth and school access. But to many people, such racially motivated policies are themselves racist, and maybe even intended to make white children feel guilty just for being white.

But even these circumstances are but data points in an older trend:

Public schooling has forced social conflict since day one, though a primary intent of its champions has been to unify diverse people. Unfortunately, conflict is unavoidable from its basic design, which requires that diverse people pay for a single system of government schools.

If you believe your children need something at odds with what you neighbor requires, you must fight them for control.

Such battles began in the earliest days of “common schooling,” with conservative and progressive Protestants battling to determine which, if any, specific dogma the schools would teach. With major Roman Catholic immigration, bigger battles raged over whose version of the Bible would be used in the schools, and how Catholics would be portrayed. Indeed, the Philadelphia Bible Riots of 1844 were two waves of actual combat sparked by whose version of the Bible — Protestant, Catholic, or none — would be used in the public schools. By the time the battles had ended, tens of people had been killed, hundreds wounded, and numerous buildings — including churches — lay in ruins.

Conflict, then, is a feature, not a bug, of mass public education. That’s hardly a selling point for public schools. But it is one for more and greater alternatives that ease tensions, and above all, deliver results.