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The Education Liberator, Vol. 1, No. 3, November 1995

Public education: How free?

What are the real costs of compulsory attendance & financing?

by Rolf McEwen

Numerous virtues have been ascribed to public education, but it is certainly not free in any sense of the word. Although tuition is not paid at the classroom door, we know that taxes are taken from people at large to pay for public schools. Costs per pupil per year range between $4,000 and $10,000 in various states.

We know that education for youth in America is mandatory. During several decades of the mid-nineteenth century, it was decided in various legislatures that compulsory education was good for the people and for the nation, perhaps to ensure an educated populace capable of self-government. It was thought that representative government required a level of education which could not be guaranteed without institutions mandated and financed by taxation and government promotion. It was sometimes considered a matter of national security, that a superior knowledge might be achieved in the people, providing a higher level of productivity and a competitive edge in world markets. Legislators considered it a matter of law to establish excellence in education through a public, tax-supported system. Therefore, the freedom to choose not to go to school was removed, and compulsory attendance laws were enforced. Citizens were not free to neglect school attendance, and they were not free to neglect tuition payments through taxation.

The intentions of those promoting tax-supported public education were good. Compulsory education laws were intended to promote the general welfare and to ensure that parents would not neglect their children's education, exploit their services at home, or manage family resources so that funds were not available for tuition payments. But the good intentions of lawmakers have not brought success. Public schools are not successful in guaranteeing student proficiency or in maintaining school attendance. Only about 75 percent of students entering high school graduate, and many of those are considered functionally illiterate. It is estimated that 20 percent of Americans cannot write a letter or read the newspaper.

Can we say then that public schools have succeeded? Have literacy and educational proficiency improved during the century or so of public schooling? Studies have shown that literacy rates in eighteenth century America were higher than they are today. Thus, ironically, the general public was more proficient academically before the introduction of compulsory education and government support of schools.

How can this be? Why have the public schools failed to provide educational excellence? Vast amounts of money are being expended, voluminous studies have been conducted, graduate schools promote advanced programs, and yet the results are so disappointing.

Perhaps the reason lies in simple concepts such as individual initiative and freedom of choice. Do not most people find it profitable to be able to read and write? Do not most people wish to make the most of their own lives, to compete successfully for desirable employment and higher income? It appears sensible that the pursuit of happiness provides sufficient incentive for people to improve themselves educationally. Thus the need for schooling is in one's self-interest, although perhaps "schooling" is not the most accurate term, for maybe it is actually learning that people seek. When schooling is mandated by law, that sense of "opportunity" which arises from free choice vanishes, and often a stubborn and uncooperative spirit finds its way into the classroom, causing disruption and hindering the learning environment for eager students. Attitude is affected by compulsion, and poor attitudes hinder education.

Likewise, the economic compulsion attached to taxation creates additional attitudinal problems. There are those who do not willingly submit thousands of dollars to the local schools, and their attitudes find expression in the surrounding culture. Often these taxpayers believe that they should have some freedom to choose their children's school. Perhaps they wish to select the teachers for their children, or the curriculum. This is not practical or possible in our public school system. Parents are unable to effect change or to choose from a variety of alternatives because the system is rigid and often controlled by district administrators or policymakers far removed from the local community. When state funds are provided to local schools, strings are often attached. It is difficult for local communities to operate schools free from bureaucratic control at state and federal levels. It is frustrating to teachers to be manipulated and directed by restrictive policies, it is frustrating to parents to be unable to make choices of schools and teachers; and it is frustrating to students to have to submit to state-mandated coursework.

Many are persuaded that abandoning compulsory education laws and tax-support for schools would result in empty classrooms and impoverished schools, but there is little historical evidence to support this theory. If it is in the interest of people to develop knowledge and skills in order to acquire desired employment and financial success, will they neglect their education? Quite the contrary, students will yearn more eagerly for education than they do under the compulsion of current law. They will perceive education not as a requirement, but as an opportunity. Administrators will not be burdened with trying to provide discipline for uninterested students, and schools would arise to meet the demands of various student interests and abilities. The market would soon be competing for students, and students would be competing for the best schools and the best teachers. The entire psychological atmosphere surrounding schools and education would be improved, would be more positive, and there would be excellence in a variety of programs. Of course, there would be some who would choose not to attend school. But those same students are not attending under the present circumstances, or are in attendance with the intention of disrupting academic order and achievement.

Whose Responsibility?

Is it the responsibility of government to decide that citizens should be educated? Should the state decide what is proper curriculum? I believe these matters are better left to parents and individuals. The enormous expense now placed upon society is not efficiently managed. Attitudes are not right. The bureaucracy has promoted attendance and conformity, but has failed to maintain creativity, interest, and excellence. Money has proven to be insufficient to mend the ills. The truth is that what education requires, government cannot provide. It needs freedom. Education needs a free market without government funding, direction, interference, or assistance. What the legislators intended to improve they diminished.

One might ask "You don't think you're going to replace government schools in America, do you?" It does seem rather incredible to pose such a possibility. It's an appealing possibility, nevertheless. The sad fact is that public education has declined for the past thirty-five years. More and more money is tossed at the problem, but results are dismal. Achievement tests have recently shown some improvement, but only due to another lowering of difficulty in the tests. If the 1960 editions of standardized tests were administered to students today the results would indicate inferior levels of achievement in all academic disciplines.

Private schools would take up the task of education and provide services at a variety of locations, with varying costs, philosophies, and areas of specialization. Students and parents would select schools of their choosing, and they would examine the programs more closely than they do under current conditions. Parents would have to take more interest in their children's education because they would have to inquire into schools and teachers and curricula. The choices would promote lively debate and inquiry in the community as parents sought the best education at the lowest cost.

Teachers' salaries would be determined by market competition. Good teachers would be promoted and poor ones would be weeded out. The bureaucracy would be unable to protect jobs for poor teachers entrenched in their positions. Teachers would sense greater support from parents and greater interest from students. Stultifying regulations and controls would be lifted from their backs, and they would acquire added freedom to stimulate learning and improve achievement. In short, the entire academic atmosphere would obtain a shot of vigor in the course of competition, freedom, and choice.

Now what can be done about the situation? We can no longer believe the experts whose self-interest is served by continuing the current system. We must rouse ourselves and take responsibility for our own lives rather than leaving it to government to provide for us, to educate us, and to make our decisions. If we give the government officials 40 percent of our national income and tell them to spend it for us, they will. And in fact, they do. Education is a good place to begin directing our own lives by allowing people to choose their own schools, or no schools, and to see education as the opportunity and responsibility that it is.

Rolf McEwen has been a high school teacher of American Literature and the Arts for over twenty years. A version of this article originally appeared in The Freeman magazine.

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