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

School Sakharovs, the Sam Adams of education reform, an erudite curmudgeon and more

SepCon'95 launches an idea whose time is near

by Steve Smith

Mark Frazier of Washington, DC, summed up SepCon'95 simply and elegantly: "A turning point for our kids' future." From across the country, about a hundred parents, educators, scholars and business leaders gathered in Arlington, Virginia, for the First Annual Conference of the Separation of School and State Alliance. Was it as revolutionary as it felt? Most participants would probably agree with Debra Monde of Abilene, Texas, that the three-day event (Nov. 10-12) was indeed "an impressive opening to an idea whose time has come."

Outside the DoubleTree Hotel, cold gray skies were matched by a gloomy political pall that seemed to settle across the Potomac as the U.S. government prepared to "shut down" over budget wrangling. But inside the hotel, the mood was decidedly cheery. SepCon attendees heard stirring speakers, listened to exciting (often heated) debates on the best ways to achieve Separation, and found time to network with one another and exchange ideas in small groups. "I feel like Sam Adams might have, if someone had put a microphone in his face [during the early stages of the American Revolution] and asked him what would happen in the next five years," Marshall Fritz remarked in opening the conference on Friday night. "We're at the beginning of a movement."

School Sakharovs lead the way

The reasons that brought people to SepCon'95 from as far as Washington state were diverse. Uniting almost all was the belief that education ? along with the liberty of parents, children, and taxpayers ? will continue to decline as long as the state is involved in schooling. Particularly poignant were the testimonials from the "School Sakharovs." These former public school educators now believe, and are willing to say out loud, that the present system can never be made to work. As Carolyn Carruth, a former school board member of Washougal, Washington, concluded, "Pools of ignorance govern our school." These alliance heroes later spoke out publicly for Separation at a news conference held at the Cato Institute.

Leading off the line-up of distinguished speakers was E.G. West, Professor Emeritus at Carleton University in Ottawa, Canada, author of scholarly books and articles on history, economics and education. He sketched some of the historical background to today's education plight by describing how many of the great classical liberals made the mistake of supporting state-governed schools. During the conference, Professor West was presented the first annual Alexis de Tocqueville Award for the Advancement of Education Freedom.

If the weekend had a show stealer, it was John Taylor Gatto, award winning teacher, author of Dumbing Us Down, and now a full-time thorn in the side of the education establishment. Gatto's irrepressible wit and outspokenness enlivened many a discussion. His tales of thwarting the system in order to do his job as a teacher had his listeners laughing. His story of the little town of Benson, Vermont ? bullied by education officials into paying for a school building, plus staff, that the townspeople neither wanted nor could afford ? had them shaking their heads in disbelief. The story brought home the unsettling truth that state schooling is a huge cash cow for construction firms, school bus manufacturers, and a host of other "suppliers." As the Separation movement gains momentum, these interests can be expected to offer resistance, too.

SepCon attendees were also enthralled by syndicated columnist Joe Sobran, who gave the Saturday night banquet speech. Sobran took up his favorite theme, that the government of the United States long ago ceased to be bound by the Constitution. He held out the hope, though that separating school and state could be the catalyst for limiting government in all spheres of American life.

Opposing viewpoints welcomed

Although the conference was obviously intended to promote Separation, time was given to hear from at least one notable person who has trouble with the idea ? Richard Mitchell, former publisher of The Underground Grammarian and author of The Graves of Academe and other books puncturing establishment pretense. Mitchell's main objection had to do with ignorant parents and the harm they might cause if relieved of the requirement to send their children to school. The audience seemed to enjoy Mitchell's erudite curmudgeonliness, even if they did not agree with his overall point.

Tax-funded school vouchers were the subject of discussion throughout the weekend. A formal debate with forceful spokespersons for both sides was held on Saturday, after which about half the audience jumped to their feet to weigh in on the matter. There are few who are dispassionate on this issue! The unique aspect to this debate on tax-funded vouchers was that all the panelists agree on the ultimate goal of separation, just not on the best means to achieve it. Whether vouchers are a genuine road to Separation, or a wrong turn, is a question that is sure to be argued for some time to come.

The role of computers in promoting education liberation also generated some disagreements. Technophiles were predominant, with Lewis Perelman, author of School's Out, presenting the case for "How Technology Is Propelling the Separation of School and State." But there were techno-skeptics as well, best represented by Richard Mitchell and John Gatto, both of whom warned against mistaking mere information for true knowledge. The technological revolution may be inevitable, though; Natalie Lloyd, a young SepCon participant from Ohio, stood up and described how she already "attends" an on-line high school.

What about the poor?

Two of the presentations dealt directly with the tough issue of how the poor will fare under Separation ? tough because so many people outside the movement will need convincing that the poor won't just be abandoned. In fact, an "inner city" panel discussion on Saturday afternoon, and a talk by Marshall Fritz on Sunday morning, provided plenty of reasons for believing that the poor will be the ones who benefit most from Separation. For those who want to start helping the poor (and others) now, a panel workshop was also offered on "How To Start a Private Voucher Program."

The SepCon'95 weekend was packed with additional presentations, panel discussions, and workshops. Sheldon Richman, author of Separation of School & State, brought the conference to a fitting close with a ringing endorsement of freedom in education. "There's the family or the state - there's no other alternative," he said.

More evidence that Separation is an idea whose time is near: Jim Turney from Virginia, who had been taping conference proceedings, was shuttling equipment back to his car when three women sharing his elevator noticed the Separation Alliance logo on something he was carrying. "Separation of school and state ? that sounds good," one said, explaining that she and her friends were all homeschoolers. As Jim scrambled to find a brochure to leave with them, they expressed keen interest in learning more about the Alliance and its mission. People are getting the word, and liking it.... Wonder how big the next SepCon will be?

Audio and video tapes are available of all the presentations from SepCon'95.

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