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Freeing the Education Market


Many a profound word is spoken unwittingly. Senator Edward M. Kennedy’s office once issued a paper stating that the literacy rate in Massachusetts has never been as high as it was before compulsory schooling was instituted. Before 1850, when Massachusetts became the first state in the United States to force children to go to school, literacy was at 98 percent. When Kennedy’s office released the paper, it was at 91 percent, although if the “functional illiterates” were removed, the rate would have been much lower.

The implications of this statement are earth-shattering. The schools were, at the very least, supposed to teach children to read. If after nearly 150 years of compulsory, governmental schooling, the literacy rate is lower than it was when parents freely saw to their children’s education, what has been the point of “public education”? What happened to the billions of dollars spent and all the promises made to parents? Should we accept another promise from, or tolerate the allocation of another penny to, what can only be regarded as nothing less than a stupendous fraud? The schools, to put it bluntly, are a scam and a sham. Despite steadily rising expenditures (doubling about every 20 years), Scholastic Aptitude Test scores fell from the mid-1960s to the late 1970s. After a slight rise, they continued their fall beginning about 1985. New York City recently reported that student achievement is still dropping. Survey after survey demonstrates that students who have been through the public schools cannot accomplish relatively simple tasks. Not only do they have trouble with reading and arithmetic, they are appallingly ignorant of history and geography. Part of the rationale of the public schools is to make children good citizens with a strong sense of American heritage. ‘Thus, it is interesting to contemplate that in a 1989 survey by the National Endowment for the Humanities, nearly one quarter of college seniors thought the words “from each according to his ability, to each according to his need” were found in the U.S. Constitution!

David Boaz, executive vice president of the Cato Institute, points out that the record of the schools is revealed in the following facts: “25 percent of U.S. college freshmen take remedial math courses, 21 percent take remedial writing courses, and 16 percent take remedial reading courses. Meanwhile, a recent survey of 200 major corporations has found that 22 percent of them teach employees reading, 41 percent teach writing, and 31 percent teach mathematical skills. The American Society for Training and Development projects that 93 percent of the nation’s biggest companies will be teaching their workers basic skills within the next three years.” As public education has become worse at teaching traditional, basic subjects, it has increasingly turned to other, murky activities that allow it to evade objective evaluation, such as promoting self-esteem and good relations with the planet.

Surely, today’s children are not more dumb than in the past. So, what is the problem? The problem is that government runs the education system. There is a de facto monopoly in education that has done exactly what we would expect of any protected monopoly: it has become grossly inefficient as it pursues its interests whether or not those interests coincide with the interests of students. Although schools are primarily governed at the local and state levels, a nationwide education bureaucracy controlled by teachers unions and professional administrators, with help from the U.S. Department of Education, determines how education is provided. And since people must pay taxes to the school system whether or not their children use it, most parents who are unhappy with the schools cannot afford to pay tuition for private schools. Thus, they are captives of a system over which they have virtually no influence.

The school system is an authoritarian, procrustean bureaucracy to which every child is expected to adjust himself. Ignoring the uniqueness of each individual, it expects all children of a given age to be learning the same things in the same way. If a child does not meet expectations, the system assumes there is something wrong with him, not the school. Naturally, most students, if not humiliated and terrified, are bored. A high-school teacher in Fairfax County, Virginia, one of the richest counties in the nation, wrote recently that boredom is the predominant undertone of school. “Instead of quality teaching,” he wrote, “schools are obsessed with time and regimentation. Such a concern would be justifiable if it produced results, but what it produces is a feeling among students that if they show up and shut up, everything will be fine.”

In the earlier grades, boredom is also a problem. If a child’s lack of interest actually disturbs the class, he could be diagnosed as having — I’m not making this up — Attention Deficit Syndrome and may be prescribed the potent drug Ritalin. Only a governmental school bureaucracy could wonder what is wrong with young children who prefer to move around, talk, and learn what they want to learn rather than sit quietly and listen to an adult droning on.

Why did the state take on the provision of education? It was not because children were going uneducated (recall the statement by Senator Kennedy). As Jack High and Jerome Ellig have written, “Private education was widely demanded in the late 18th and 19th centuries in Great Britain and America. The private supply of education was highly responsive to that demand, with the consequence that large numbers of children from all classes of Society received several years of education.”

Government schools were not a response to the lack of private education but rather a direct assault on it. Public education was the brainchild of the “Progressive” mindset, which sees only disorder and chance in liberty. Public education would, in the Progressives’ view, homogenize America’s ethnically, Culturally, and religiously diverse population and create a national culture. (The result has been an enduring and nasty battle over whose values would be subsidized by the taxpayers.) The Catholic schools were a prime target of public education. Indeed, one can see the public school movement as an attempt to, among other things, “Christianize the Catholics.”

Another objective of the schools was to make good, quiescent taxpayers out of the children who would be future citizens and voters. A further purpose was to keep children out of the work force so they would not compete with adults. Finally, the schools were looked on by the guardians of the economy as a “sorting machine,” which would track and channel children into the curricula they were deemed suited for in order to fulfill the needs of industry.

The most revealing feature of public schooling is compulsory attendance. Children have to go, and the length of time has increased over the years. The teacher and school critic John Holt found it interesting that children may not take the high-school equivalency exam sooner than the age at which they would complete high school. Why not? If a child can demonstrate at age 13 that he knows what is required of a high-school graduate, why shouldn’t he be able to take the exam and be done with school. There is only one answer: because the school is primarily a custodial institution. It is not there to serve the children.

Nothing is less suited to an environment of learning than compulsion. The very idea of compulsory learning is ludicrous. Given a biologically normal child, learning is inevitable. Think how much children learn during their pre-school years. Compulsion is not merely superfluous; it is self-defeating.

The urgent solution to the education crisis is the complete separation of school and state. The public schools should be sold to the highest bidder, school taxes scrapped, and compulsory-attendance laws repealed. Anyone should be free to start any kind of school, profit or non-profit, religious or secular. There should be no governmental requirements for curricula or textbooks. Parents should be free to send their children to any kind of school — or to none at all. Laws regarding child labor and apprenticeships should be scrapped. All restrictions on homeschooling should be abolished.

As John Holt noted, this would not only liberate parents and children, it would revive the moribund teaching profession: “Only when parents, not just rich ones, have a truly free choice in education, when they can take their children out of a school they don’t like, and have a choice of many others to send them to, or the possibility of starting their own, or of educating their children outside of school altogether — only then will we teachers begin to stop being what most of us still are and if we are honest know we are, which is jailers and baby-sitters, cops without uniforms, and begin to be professionals, freely exercising an important, valued, and honored skill and art.”

(Update: Senator Kennedy’s staff maintains that no such paper or statement ever eminated from his office . The allegation that Kennedy once referred to it on the Senate floor could not be confirmed, despite a thorough search of the Congressional Record for the relevant period.)

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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.