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Dress-Code Controversies in Public Schools


An op-ed in today’s Los Angeles Times entitled “School Dress Codes: Miniskirt Madness” by a New York law professor named Ruthann Robson demonstrates perfectly the difference between libertarians and statists.

Robson is upset over the increasingly strict enforcement of dress codes within America’s public schools. She says that enforcement of such codes interferes with what public schools should be all about — education. Now, that’s not to say that Robson is opposed to any dress codes. It’s just to say that she feels that the schools should enforce a type of limited dress code that she favors.

What do libertarians say about the dress-code controversy in public schools? We don’t say anything about that. Why? Unlike Robson and other statists, we don’t believe in public schooling. So, we don’t permit ourselves to get mired down in disputes over how public schools should be operated.

Citing a 1925 U.S. Supreme Court decision, Robson says that “the state does not have the power to ‘standardize’ its children, but too-detailed school dress codes seek to accomplish just that.”

What Robson unfortunately fails to recognize is that it’s not just strict dress codes that standardize children, it is public schooling itself that does that.

Keep in mind, after all, that public schooling is government schooling. Public schooling is, in principle, no different from the army, which, of course, is also run by the government. Like the military, the goal of public schooling is not so much education but rather training, conformity, obedience, and deference to authority. Its aim is to produce what we might call “the good little citizen” — the type who, while carping about how the government does certain things, never challenges at a fundamental level what government is doing.

Also like the military, public schooling is one gigantic socialist enterprise. The school’s curriculum and textbooks are determined by a central planning agency, whether at a local level (the school board) or a state or national level (departments of education). Funding is by taxation. Attendance is through compulsory-attendance laws.

Thus, why should anyone be surprised that public schooling is such a dismal failure when it comes to education and nurturing a love of learning and such a grand success in producing people who defer to authority and who are unable to engage in critical thinking with respect to the proper role of government in people’s lives?

Consider Robson. There is not one iota of indication in her 850-word op-ed that she has even considered the possibility of a total separation of school and state — a total free market in education. If she were to hear of such an idea, my hunch is that she would summarily dismiss it with nary a thought. Since a free-market educational system involves taking the education debate to a higher level — one involving a completely different paradigm — it’s simply much too frightening for most statists to even consider.

Robson complains that dress codes “rely on anti-democratic principles.” But how else are these types of disputes supposed to be resolved except by a democratic vote? People who favor strict dress codes are just as passionately committed to their position as Robson is to hers. How is the matter to be resolved? By the majority vote of the school board, which is elected by a majority vote of the electorate. And the losers must submit to the will of the majority.

In a free-market educational system, these disputes disappear. Parents are free to choose the educational vehicle that they believe is most appropriate for each of their children. Entrepreneurs are free to enter the educational market to compete for the parents’ business. If a school has a strict dress code, some parents will send their children there and others will not. The same holds true for schools with flexible dress codes.

As long as the government is permitted to run a schooling system, there will be never-ending, irreconcilable disputes such as the one involving dress codes. There will also be a never-ending stream of young people graduating who have come to hate learning and who have mindsets of conformity, obedience, and deference to authority.

There is only one solution to all this and it doesn’t involve getting one’s favorite dress code adopted by public schools. The solution to rise to a higher level and challenge the role of government in education, as our ancestors did with religion. The solution is to separate school and state, just as they did with church and state.


This post was written by:

Jacob G. Hornberger is founder and president of The Future of Freedom Foundation. He was born and raised in Laredo, Texas, and received his B.A. in economics from Virginia Military Institute and his law degree from the University of Texas. He was a trial attorney for twelve years in Texas. He also was an adjunct professor at the University of Dallas, where he taught law and economics. In 1987, Mr. Hornberger left the practice of law to become director of programs at the Foundation for Economic Education. He has advanced freedom and free markets on talk-radio stations all across the country as well as on Fox News’ Neil Cavuto and Greta van Susteren shows and he appeared as a regular commentator on Judge Andrew Napolitano’s show Freedom Watch. View these interviews at LewRockwell.com and from Full Context. Send him email.