It would be difficult to find a better example of American socialism than the institution of public schooling or, as it might be more accurately termed, government schooling.
Public schooling is based on socialist central planning. Whether at a federal, state, or local level, government officials plan, in a top-down, command-and-control manner, the education of millions, thousands, or hundreds of students.
Participation in the state’s education system is mandatory. To ensure compliance on the part of parents, the state has enacted what are called compulsory-attendance laws. If parents refuse to subject their children to the state’s system, the state will secure a judicial order from a state judge mandating that the recalcitrant parents appear in his court to show cause why they are not complying with the law. If they refuse to appear, they are cited with contempt of court, and the judge will order their arrest. Law-enforcement agents will carry out the arrest warrant. Once the parents are jailed, they will remain there until they agree to comply with the state’s compulsory-attendance laws.
In the 1970s, before homeschooling became legal, a Utah man named John Singer refused to subject his children to the state’s schooling system. He also refused to comply with a judge’s order to appear to explain or justify his recalcitrance. In the end, law-enforcement officers shot him dead. They called it resisting arrest, but the underlying reason was his refusal to comply with the state’s compulsory school-attendance laws.
Later, after many years of state opposition and resistance, homeschooling became legal. Nonetheless, it is understood that homeschooling is not allowed as a matter of right but rather because the state permits it as part of its overall control of education. Moreover, in many, if not most states, parents must prove to the state that their children are being educated in a way that satisfies state officials.
Coercion and indoctrination
Of course, there are privately owned schools, but in order to operate they must secure and maintain a license from the state. If they fail to meet the state’s standards, their license is refused or revoked.
Public schooling is funded though coercion. The state taxes people, many of whom do not have children (or children in school) in order to get the money to fund its operations. There is nothing voluntary about taxation. If one refuses to pay his taxes, the state will come after him with liens, garnishments, attachments, and even criminal prosecution.
Public-school students use government-approved textbooks, and the curriculum is set by the state. The teachers are vetted and hired by the government. Most classes are one hour in length. Heaven help a student who, on hearing the bell ring at the end of class, doesn’t make it to his next class on time.
Regimentation, obedience to orders, indoctrination, memorization, and regurgitation of information on tests are standard fare in every government school across the country. Public schooling might well be termed “army-lite,” given its similarity to boot camp for military conscripts.
Naturally, some children get bored with this government-run system. Woe unto them! A few parents will conclude rightly that it’s the system that is ill, not their child, and remove him from the system. Others, however, nod with approval when state officials diagnose their bored kid with “attention deficit disorder” and prescribe medication such as Adderall until their child gets his head straight.
Given the socialist nature of this institution, it shouldn’t surprise anyone that public schooling also plays an important role in such socialist countries as Cuba, North Korea, China, and Vietnam. Government officials in those countries believe as strongly as U.S. officials that education of the young needs to be under the control of the state.
Indoctrination of the young is a critically important aim of the state with public schooling. From the very first day in school, schoolteachers ingrain American students with the notion that they live in a free society and that their economic system is “free enterprise.”
Of course, as libertarians know, it’s all a lie, but what 6-year-old is going to know that, especially since his parents are more often than not a product of the same system? As he recites the Pledge of Allegiance (which was written by an avowed socialist) every day, he becomes convinced about how free he is (“with liberty and justice for all”). By the time he graduates high school, there is no doubt in his mind that he, unlike government-school students in socialist countries, lives in the freest country in history.
Of course, it’s no different in socialist countries. Public schoolteachers there indoctrinate their students in the same way, telling them that such socialist programs as government-provided retirement pay, government-guaranteed health care, government-provided education, and government assistance for the poor show that people who live under socialism are living in a free society.
Many years ago, I traveled to Cuba. In Havana I visited a museum that focused on actions that the U.S. government, specifically the Pentagon and the CIA, had taken against Cuba — an invasion, assassination attempts against Cuban leaders, a brutal economic embargo, and terrorist attacks against Cuban-owned businesses that left innocent people dead.
Cuban students were being indoctrinated as to the evils of America’s national-security state. American students, of course, are indoctrinated with the exact opposite perspective: that the Pentagon and the CIA are a force for good in the world, that Cuba was part of a worldwide communist conspiracy to take over the world, that Cuba was a “dagger pointed at America’s throat,” and that Cuba posed a grave threat to U.S. “national security.” All that, American students are taught, justified the U.S. invasion of Cuba, the embargo, the assassination attempts, and the acts of state-sponsored terrorism.
And it is no surprise that there are no courses in libertarianism taught in any public school in the nation. The last thing American government officials want children to learn about is libertarianism. They don’t want some libertarian schoolteacher contradicting their version of what a free society is. They don’t want students to hear how the conversion of America to a welfare-state and a national-security state destroys freedom in America.
For decades, public schooling has been in crisis, a phenomenon that everyone, even the most ardent proponents of public schooling, acknowledges. The problem, however, is that there is still hope among the American people that this never-ending crisis can be ended. The hope is that there is some education-reform plan still waiting to be discovered that will finally make this socialist educational system work.
It will never happen. Socialism is an inherently defective paradigm. It cannot be made to work, no matter how many “better people” are appointed or elected to the federal Department of Education, the state departments of education, or to the local school boards. No matter what reform is adopted and no matter who is in charge of the system, the public-schooling crisis will continue.
Long ago, conservatives began promoting school vouchers as a way to finally fix the public-school system. The program was doomed to fail from the start. After all, school vouchers themselves constitute a socialist program, in that they use the force of the state to take money from people to whom it rightly belongs and give it to those to whom it does not belong. How could a socialist program ever be a solution to a socialist program? The notion was ludicrous from the beginning.
Unfortunately, there were libertarians who grabbed on to the voucher concept. Their reason? They concluded that if they were to be taken seriously by the mainstream media, they had to accept the permanent existence of public schooling and just come up with ways to save children from it and also to improve the system through competition and what they call “choice.”
The notion is that when people receive school vouchers that can be used in private schools, the parents receiving them have a “choice” that enables them to send their children to private school. But of course the same argument can be said of a thief. The minute he leaves a house with his loot, he too has choices that he didn’t have before. But choices coming from wrongfully acquired money are not what we ordinarily countenance in moral terms.
When vouchers were first being promoted, some libertarians argued that they were a transition device that would lead to the end of public schooling. That argument was fallacious from the start. In fact, vouchers have proven to do the exact opposite. They more deeply embed the state in the education process, especially for private schools that accept the vouchers. With the influx of voucher revenue, private schools expand operations by hiring new teachers and administrators, building new buildings, and acquiring more tools and equipment. Once dependent on the dole, they will fight fiercely any attempt to give it up.
Among the worst aspects of the advocacy of school vouchers by libertarians is that people conclude that this socialist reform program is “libertarian” or “freedom-oriented” simply because there are some libertarian think tanks that promote it. The idea is that if prominent libertarian think tanks advocate a program, it must be libertarian.
Another baleful aspect of public schooling is what it does to people’s minds. Every kid from birth to 6 years old is characterized by a wide-eyed awe of the universe. He absorbs everything he sees and as soon as he is able to speak, he begins bedeviling his parents with questions, the most annoying being that infamous 3-letter word, “Why?”
By the time kids graduate high school, however, that natural and passionate love of learning has been smashed out of most of them. All they want to do is get out of school. The lucky ones rediscover their natural inquisitiveness and passion for learning sometime before they die. The unlucky ones go to their death-beds unaware of what the state did to them through public schooling.
There is but one solution to the education morass — liberty — educational liberty — the separation of school and state, just as our ancestors separated church and state. That would mean the repeal of compulsory school-attendance laws and school taxes and the selling off of all the public-school buildings. It would mean the end of all governmental involvement in education — a total free-market educational system.
The free market produces the best of everything. There is no doubt that it would produce the greatest educational system in history. Families, not the state, would be responsible for the education of their children. That’s a necessary prerequisite for a free society, one where the citizens are masters and the government officials are the servants.
In a free-market educational system, educational entrepreneurs would flood the market with new, dynamic, and innovative educational methods, ideas, and locales. There would be music schools, religious schools, secular schools, or simply unique education devices that cater to people who wish to have their children educated in a different manner.
The most important thing would be that each child could be treated as the one-of-a-kind person he is, rather than be crammed into the cookie-cutter mold that characterizes the government schooling system. Children would recapture and retain that awe of the universe and a passion for learning throughout their lives.
What about the poor? As we see in other areas of our lives — religion, computers, restaurants, grocery stores, automobiles, and so many others, entrepreneurs cater not only to the rich but also to the middle class and poor. They would do the same in a free-market educational system.
Moreover, there are always people among the rich and middle class who love helping poor people get an education. Voluntary donations would fund scholarships, tuition, and educational opportunities for the less fortunate.
Almost 250 years ago, our ancestors embraced a radical concept called the separation of church and state. No compulsory church-attendance laws. No church taxes. No government control or regulation over religion. Americans have developed a tolerance for how other people make their religion decisions.
As Sheldon Richman pointed out in The Future of Freedom Foundation’s award-winning book Separating School & State: How to Liberate America’s Families, there is but one solution to the education morass — liberty — educational liberty — the separation of school and state, just as our ancestors separated church and state.
This article was originally published in the August 2020 edition of Future of Freedom.