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Public Schools or Government Schools?

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A woman named Katherine Stewart is outraged that some people refer to public schools as government schools. In an op-ed in today’s New York Times, she says that the term “government schools” is meant to “conjure the specter of pathologically inefficient, power-mad bureaucrats.”

Even worse, she suggests that historically anti-government schooling sentiment has been held by racial bigots and evangelical right-wing Christians. I suppose that the idea is that if you’re against government schooling, you’re probably a racist or a radical member of the Christian Right.

It’s a shame that Stewart spends more time developing spurious logic than on critically examining the principles of public schooling itself.

Although the term “public schooling” has long been used by most people, the fact is that this is a government program. What’s wrong with pointing that out by using the much more accurate term “government schooling”?

Sure, it’s true that the term has negative connotations but there is a justification for that. Government programs, if not “pathologically inefficient,” are notoriously inefficient. Everyone knows that. And everyone also knows that while not everyone in the government is a power-mad bureaucrat (or politician), there are people in government who love power.

I would assume that by now everyone, including Stewart, would acknowledge that government schooling is inefficient. It certainly spends a lot more money per student than private schools do and with results that are comparatively dismal. In fact, most everyone acknowledges that there has been an ongoing crisis in government schooling for decades, one that has increasingly dumbed down students. Why, even former President Obama refused to send his children into the government schooling system.

For some reason, Stewart failed to use the term that describes public schooling even better than the term “government schooling.” That term is “socialism,” which conjures up inefficiency, crisis, and chaos.

It would be difficult to find a better example of a socialist program than government schooling. There is a central board, at a national, state, or local level, planning, in a top-down, command-and-control manner, the educational decisions of hundreds, thousands, or millions of students. Government curricula and textbooks are used. Teachers and administrators are government employees. That’s a classic socialist model.

It’s worse than that. Like with all socialist programs, coercion and compulsion are core elements of the program. Parents are required by law to have their children submit to state-approved schooling. Although homeschooling and private schooling are now permitted, most parents default toward sending their children into the state’s educational system. Moreover, many private schools end up being much like government schools especially since the state controls the renewal of their license to operate. In many states, homeschooling programs must meet with the approval of the state and, therefore, can end up resembling the state’s schooling program.

Funding for government schooling? Again, it’s with coercion. The state taxes everyone, even people without children, to fund the program. We all know what happens if someone refuses to pay his taxes.

Why would anyone believe that a system based on socialist central planning and coercion would bring about positive results when it comes to education? Genuine education involves a seeking process, which is contrary to force. Coercion and education are like oil and water.

The opposite of socialism and coercion is freedom and the free market, a process that Stewart clearly disdains. Yet, the free market is simply a way of life in which people are interacting with each other on a purely voluntary basis. In education, it means that families, not the government, manage educational decisions and that entrepreneurs compete with each other in the furnishing of educational vehicles. What’s not to like about that, especially since the free market always produces better products and services than government programs?

The worst aspect of government schooling is what it does to people’s minds. As a form of army-lite training, the regimentation of government schooling ends up producing a mindset of conformity, obedience to authority, a strong belief in central planning and coercion, and a deeply held conviction that freedom and free markets simply do not work.

In her article, Stewart cites Milton Friedman, the Nobel Prize winning libertarian economist who proposed vouchers as a way to save children from the horrors of government schooling. While Friedman was right about government schooling, he was wrong about vouchers. Vouchers are just another socialist program, one that makes families and private schools dependent on the voucher dole, thereby making the state even more entrenched in education. There is only one solution to the educational morass: Separate school and state in the way our ancestors separated church and state.

Stewart wraps up her op-ed by pointing out that opponents of government schools want “freedom” from democracy. She’s right about that. We want freedom from democracy when it comes to religion. That’s why we have the First Amendment — to protect us from democracy with respect to religion. We want the same protection when it comes to education. What’s wrong with that?

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.