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The Education Liberator, Vol. 2, No. 3, April 1996

More practicalities of separating school & state

Part 5: Scrutinizing separation strategies

by Pam Probst

For two years, the Separation Alliance has worked to prepare the foundation from which to support grass roots volunteer activity. Now we're ready to launch that activity, and this article is another in a series dealing with the practical factors of communicating our idea of Separation.

Part 5: Scrutinizing separation strategies

"So far, I am unaware of any principled basis for distinguishing between incremental steps that are truly helpful, and those which are decoy reforms that delay the real goal." ? Marshall Fritz [1]

School separationists are united in understanding that government should have no role in education, whether that be forced funding, attendance or curriculum. Our task, now that separation of school from state has gone from being a ludicrous idea to merely "impossible," is one of implementation. How do we get there from here?

Since we are unlikely to be able to scrap the system overnight, we will have to make incremental steps towards our goal of complete Separation. In other words: REFORM. Therein lies the rub. Reform is the mother's milk of the education industry in this country. We have been assaulted with so many bogus reforms that (pardon the bluntness) our "crap detectors" are numb. How can we be sure that any reform is truly on the track toward the goal of Separation and not just another way of "improving" the status quo? How can we be certain that any particular reform is a moral action based on principled ideas?

Translating ideas into action is always risky business. Goals can get corrupted in the name of expediency, and principles are often sacrificed to efficiency. One of the reasons this so often happens is that the thinkers are usually not the "doers." If we are to be honest and effective, not only must the original ideas be principled, but so must the subsequent actions based on those ideas. Education reformers must take care to put proposed remedies such as vouchers, school choice, and charter schools through what the Separation Alliance's Marshall Fritz calls an "Incremental Step Filter."

The filter proposed here is simply a set of criteria enabling us to judge whether or not any proposed reform is not only useful, but principled as well. Fritz says a Separation reform worth supporting will "not include any immoral component," "will not hide the eventual goal" of complete separation and will "not pretend to 'solve' the problem."

Slavery's pragmatists

"Let's make a comparison," says Fritz. "William Lloyd Garrison never freed a slave. He just wrote about it. Douglass and Phillips didn't free any, either, but spoke about it. Harriet Tubman and Sojourner Truth actually freed slaves. They went into slave territory and recruited 5 to 15 [slaves at a time] to follow them up North where they could get into the underground railway. Tubman was practical, concrete, and immediate; Garrison was abstract, overarching, big picture. Both were necessary. Like a pair of scissors, perhaps it takes one to cut against the other.

"But what if Tubman could have freed 20 slaves by capturing Frederick Douglass and handing him over to a slaveholder? Net, 19 freed slaves. Would you endorse this 'incremental step' to freeing all slaves? Or what if the newly enslaved person is not a famous abolitionist, just a really good bare knuckle boxer that the slaveowner could have made big money, or fun, with? Would the trade then be OK?

"If you say 'Yes,' you are a pragmatist without concern for the traditional concepts of good and evil. If you say 'No,' you are a principled person who will hang on [to that] principle even if it means the continued enslavement of 20 people. In other words, the 'No' means you do not believe the (good) ends justify the (evil) means. Me too."

Tax-funded vouchers are an example of the riskiness of trying to infuse Separationist thought into real-world action. [2] Even if we leave aside the "small matter" of where the tax money to fund the vouchers comes from, there is another problem that a good Incremental Step Filter sifts out. All proposed voucher plans include a proviso giving vouchers to many who already buy a private education. "Of course, some may argue that it is NOT immoral to recruit independent people into dependency upon government," says Fritz, "but I would ask them what they think of welfare caseworkers who, sometimes, actually go into the fields and recruit farmworkers to come onto welfare. They show them how they can make more money for their families by not working than by working. They teach them how to use the system."

"Reforms" that fail the test

Further sifting reveals that vouchers are not necessarily a step toward Separation. Were every family to be given vouchers the system could continue on much as it does now. Parents would pick and choose among the government-approved schools, and the competition would likely make them slightly more responsive to parental wishes, but there is nothing that would keep politicians from applying the power of the purse strings to parents the way they do now with schools. Compulsory funding, compulsory attendance and compulsory curriculum can coexist easily with tax-funded vouchers. Vouchers fail to pass the morality filter and the goal filter. As far as separation of school and state goes, vouchers are not a good incremental step.

Charter schools and "public school choice" are two other reforms that are gaining popularity. These proposals suffer from the same problems as do vouchers, namely that they include the immoral components of tax-financing, coerced attendance and forced curriculum. Nor do they lead to Separation since they keep in place the most onerous components of our present school system, and may even reinforce them by sweeping up current private schools and homeschoolers under their umbrella.

What steps can we take, then, that will actually move us toward Separation, and in a principled manner? The sidebar lists several ideas from the Separation of School and State Alliance that do appear to pass the "Incremental Step Filter." Are there others?

15 Steps That may pass the Separation filter

It is not enough to wait until we can free all the children and taxpayers from the clutch of the school system. The separation process must involve individuals working on solutions that are right for themselves right now, and not rely on the educational bureaucrats suddenly waking up one day, slapping themselves on the forehead and saying, "How could I have been so blind?". Below are ideas that can be undertaken today on an individual basis as well as through group effort.

Encourage and facilitate removing children from tax-funded schools.

  • Set up a private scholarship foundation
  • Remove your own children from tax-funded schools
  • Recruit a clergy person to tell the flock of the danger of tax-funded schools, and encourage them to remove their children
  • Set up a school in your neighborhood or church
  • Work in a political field (lobbying, initiatives, etc.) to repeal compulsory attendance legislation.

Reduce tax-financing of government-run schools.

  • Perform political action to require that any increase in funding of government-run schools must come from tuition or fees assessed to parents of children in the schools. This would reduce the differential between tax-funded schools and parent-financed schools, and would begin to attack the fabricated right that all children are born with a right to an education at taxpayer expense.
  • Do political action that requires tax-funded schools to reduce by x% each year their use of tax funds. They would have the choice of reducing costs or raising the money from parents or charities.

Download decision making from the fed to the states, from the states to districts, from the districts to schools, and finally from schools to parents.

  • Ending all federal financing and involvement in education is a good start. (Note I did not say, "Eliminate Department of Education." It is the financing and involvement that is important, not the department. For example, if we kept the DOE but all workers were volunteers, all moneys they used came from voluntary sources, and their edicts had no binding power whatsoever, it would really cease to exist. Some politician would accept the position of "Secretary," but the position would be so gutted as to be meaningless. Compare this to getting rid of the department by shuffling its staff and funding to other departments. That does no good whatsoever. It is just a decoy reform so politicians can pretend they did something.)
  • End state textbook selection.
  • End state credentialing of teachers.
  • End state "frameworks" and other impositions of curriculum decisions.
  • End state high school graduation requirements
  • End state prohibitions of schools operating solely in a foreign language.

1. Separation comments and ideas by Marshall Fritz are from the SepSchool email list on 11/24/95. [back]

2. Privately funded vouchers are good. Hats off to J. Patrick Rooney of the Golden Rule Insurance Co. for popularizing this concept. [back]

Pam Probst is the editor of Libertarian Los Angeles, where a version of this article first appeared. She is a candidate for Congress this year from California's 30th district, with Separation as her main campaign theme. She and her husband Rick homeschool their four children, ages 1 through 15.

This article is copyrighted by the Alliance for the Separation of School & State. Permission is granted to freely distribute this article as long as this copyright notice is included in its entirety.