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The Education Liberator, Vol. 1, No. 4, December 1995/January 1996

Why the state took control of "education"

Government schools are not there to serve children

by Sheldon Richman

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 91 percent, although if the "functional illiterates" were removed, the rate would have been much lower.

The implications of this statement are earth-shaking. The schools were, at the very least, supposed to teach children to read. If after nearly 150 years of compulsory, government 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?

None of this has deterred the advocates of public schooling from demanding more money of the taxpayers, with the unsubtle message that it is the people's parsimoniousness that has kept the system from delivering on its extravagant promises.

The schools, to put it bluntly, are a scam and a scandal. Despite steadily rising expenditures in the last half century (doubling every twenty years), 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, Vice President of Cato Institute, points out that the record of the schools is revealed in the following facts: "25 percent of U.S. college freshman 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 evalution, such as promoting self-esteem and good relations with the planet.

Surely, today's kids are not stupider 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. (And we already have the two-tier, rich-nonrich system that the apologists of the public schools warn of.)

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 learn 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.... Almost every student I talked to complained about the deadly repetition of course material over the years, especially history and some government courses." The teacher quoted one student as saying, "The game is memorize this, spit it back and don't give me any grief." Another said, "It's hard to stay interested when you get the impression that administrators and teachers just want you to be there and keep on moving---that they don't care if you are interested as long as you aren't causing them any trouble." Bear in mind that these students were talking not about an inner-city school, but about one of the best high schools in suburbia.

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 Attention Deficit Syndrome and may be prescribed the potent drug Ritalin. Only a government 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 are there public schools? When the government decided to help poor people buy food, it didn't build state grocery stores. It issued food stamps that are used at private stores. The point is not that food stamps are a proper government function, but that funding and provision are distinct issues. Why did the state take on the provision of education? It was not because children were going uneducated ? recall the statement by Senator Kennedy's office. As Jack High and Jerome Ellig of George Mason University 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." (Emphasis added.)

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 Catholics 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. 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 compulsion than learning. 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 government requirements for curricula or textbooks. Parents should be free to send their children to any kind of school ? or 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. As Holt put it: "Only when all 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 babysitters, cops without uniforms, and begin to be professionals, freely exercising an important valued, and honored skill and art."

Sheldon Richman is a Senior Editor at the Cato Institute and the author of Separating School & State: How to Liberate America's Families.

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