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The Education Crisis Is Real


A recent book claims that the crisis in government school systems has been manufactured by the enemies of public education. Authors David C. Berliner and Bruce J. Biddle think the widespread concern about what goes on in the schools is based on myth. Judge for yourself.

At a school in East Stroudsburg, Pennsylvania, 50 girls were compelled to submit to genital examinations against their will and without the knowledge of their parents. When the girls tried to leave the room, a nurse block their way. When one demanded to be allowed to call her mother, she was refused. In response to parents’ complaints, the school district said that no rule was violated. The local police said the examinations broke no law.

In Boston, a 13-year-old girl has been refused entry at America’s oldest public school-because she is white. Although Julia McLaughlin placed in the top 300 of the 3,000 students who took the Boston Latin entrance exam, she was kept out. One hundred black and Hispanic students who scored below her will be permitted to attend. The district claims that if the 35-percent minority quota is scrapped, the number of blacks and Hispanics at the school would fall by half. The girl’s father, who is a lawyer, is suing the school district.

Racial classification of students in the style of the old South Africa is not unusual. In Montgomery County, Maryland, near the nation’s capital, two girls who are part Asian and part white were turned away from their district’s French-immersion school because the school they had been assigned to would have been left with too few Asian children.

In New York City, a public scandal has erupted over rampant patronage in the city’s schools. Superintendents and principals are hired on the basis of who they are related to, and the city’s districts are run like the personal grand duchies of school-board officials.

The New York Times reports that political favoritism and infighting are too obvious to escape notice. “Meanwhile, the feeling takes root among parents, teachers and the students themselves that the people in charge of their schools care more about jobs and power than about education,” the Times wrote.

That feeling is setting in elsewhere. In Pennsylvania, controversy broke out after an official suggested that patronage be barred from the schools. This is the dirty little secret of America’s public schools: the system does not exist for the children. It exists for the people who run it-the unions, the bureaucrats, and the politicians.

In California, state school officials ended a 10-year program with the whole-language reading method after the performance of students plummeted. The state’s superintendent of public instruction called the program “an honest mistake.” Nevertheless, for ten years, millions of students were, in effect, abused by their schools.

At the root of all these scandals is the fact that government runs the schools. As long as that is so, the schools will have their revenue guaranteed through the tax system and their customers provided through compulsion. Relieved of the need to attract students and money, the schools have no pressure to be responsive and accountable to the children and parents forced to use them. To the system, parents are potential irritants and children mere pawns in the hands of social engineers and education theorists eager to try out the latest pedagogical and psychological fads.

Political reforms may remove some of the more egregious abuses the schools inflict on America’s families. But they don’t get at the real cause. Government control usurps the family’s responsibility for the education of children and turn schools into buildings that have little to do with education. The only way to shift control back to families is to remove government from education altogether.

The separation of church and state is a recognized safeguard of freedom and family well-being. For the same reason, we must now separate school and state.

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    Sheldon Richman is former vice president and editor at The Future of Freedom Foundation and editor of FFF's monthly journal, Future of Freedom. For 15 years he was editor of The Freeman, published by the Foundation for Economic Education in Irvington, New York. He is the author of FFF's award-winning book Separating School & State: How to Liberate America's Families; Your Money or Your Life: Why We Must Abolish the Income Tax; and Tethered Citizens: Time to Repeal the Welfare State. Calling for the abolition, not the reform, of public schooling. Separating School & State has become a landmark book in both libertarian and educational circles. In his column in the Financial Times, Michael Prowse wrote: "I recommend a subversive tract, Separating School & State by Sheldon Richman of the Cato Institute, a Washington think tank... . I also think that Mr. Richman is right to fear that state education undermines personal responsibility..." Sheldon's articles on economic policy, education, civil liberties, American history, foreign policy, and the Middle East have appeared in the Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, American Scholar, Chicago Tribune, USA Today, Washington Times, The American Conservative, Insight, Cato Policy Report, Journal of Economic Development, The Freeman, The World & I, Reason, Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, Middle East Policy, Liberty magazine, and other publications. He is a contributor to the The Concise Encyclopedia of Economics. A former newspaper reporter and senior editor at the Cato Institute and the Institute for Humane Studies, Sheldon is a graduate of Temple University in Philadelphia. He blogs at Free Association. Send him e-mail.