Mr. Smyth is a journalist and free-lance author in New Jersey.
One night I had a dream. I dreamed that some of us got together in our small New Jersey town and abolished its public school system. We removed the public school system’s legal privileges, and ended its tax support. From then on, all schools would have to compete on an equal footing in a free and open market.
In my dream, we had to face down tremendous opposition. From traditionalists who insisted that a public school system is an integral part of the American way of life. From educational experts who told us we would raise a generation of ignorant savages. From real estate people who warned us that buyers would shun our town and that real estate values would plummet. From legal experts who told us the move was illegal and unconstitutional. From teachers and employees of the public schools who saw unemployment staring them in the face. From parents and citizens who were worried to distraction by all these objectors.
Nevertheless, we accomplished it. In my dream, our decisive weapon seemed to be the circular we sent to all the town’s inhabitants. We pointed out that residents like my 75-year-old neighbor Mrs. B., now scraping by on Social Security, was paying $1,000 a year in taxes for a school system she hadn’t used since her children grew up. She would continue paying for the rest of her days although she would never again use the school system. I pointed out that I was paying $1,800 a year to send my son to a Catholic high school in addition to the $1,800 that was extracted from me in taxes for a school system I wasn’t using either. I asked this question: If a private organization can run a school for a yearly fee of $1,800 per student, why does the public school system have to charge an average of $1,500 to every householder in the town—not only parents of school children but also elderly people like Mrs. B.? Childless couples? Single people? None of them have any children nor get any benefits in return for their tax money.
Catholic schools can rely on the volunteer work of their brothers, priests, and nuns, and pay their lay teachers less than public school teachers, some objectors said. But this didn’t convince some parents who were sending their children to private schools for a fee of $3,000 to $5,000 a year. They pointed out that on a per-student basis these privately run schools were still costing about the same as the per-student cost of the public school system, and providing a better education.
Anyway, the town council was planning to increase school taxes the following year, people in our town were getting tired of rising taxes, and they decided to give us a chance. In my dream, we dumped the school system.
Then the competition began. A group of public school teachers decided to form a cooperative, rent one of the elementary school buildings, and offer a primary school education for a fee. They all knew each other, they wanted to succeed, and they didn’t have much trouble weeding out the incompetents in choosing their co-op members. They knew they couldn’t survive with a lot of dead wood in the staff.
A Protestant group that had been running a Bible-oriented school in an abandoned army barracks decided to bid for another of the school buildings and advertised for pupils among the Protestant churches.
The Catholic church already had a boys’ school in the area but lacked a girls’ school. It decided to rent a third school building for this purpose.
A fourth school went to a conservative Jewish group that stressed instruction in Hebrew and Jewish religion.
The remaining school, which had already been closed under the public school system due to the baby-bust that had resulted in declining enrollment, was sold to a private entrepreneur. This man rented out sections of the school to various smaller groups: One school specialized in helping retarded children, another stressed practical instructions such as carpentry, a third was oriented to technological instruction in electronics and computers.
In my dream, we now had a wide variety of schools available for all our parents. If they didn’t like one they could try another. If they couldn’t afford this one they could move their children to that one.
There were some poor people in town who said they could not afford any school. If they were homeowners, we asked how they had previously afforded the school taxes, which were now abolished. If they rented apartments, they should have benefited from the dramatically lower taxes paid by their landlords who, in response to competitive forces, were lowering their rents.
Nevertheless, there were people who genuinely could not afford to pay for their children’s education. In my dream, we asked the churches to help these people, which they were the more willing to do now that they had more Protestant, Catholic, or Jewish schools to choose from. We asked business, social, and civic organizations to provide scholarships for needy children.
There were still a few parents—a very small, ignorant antisocial minority—who willfully and positively refused to provide their children with any education at all. I was wondering what should be done about these people—and I do not believe in forcing anyone to do anything, but still the situation seemed unfair to their children—when I woke up.
An Impossible Dream?
I am acquainted with the school system administrator in our town and the next time I met him I asked him whether my dream could ever become a reality. Impossible, he said. The laws simply will not allow the abolition of a public school system. We have to try to improve what we have.
The administrator is an amiable, harassed man who deserves a better fate. He is doing his best to run a system which relies on the political solution of school problems. The political solution means that everybody in town votes on what is to be done about the school system, the majority elects its representatives into office, and then everybody has to do what the majority wants. This means there are always minorities—some of them very vocal and indignant—who are not getting what they want, and who are therefore perpetually harassing the school administrator. There is, however, nothing we can do about it, because that is the way the system works.
Abolish the political solution method—which means ending the public school monopoly and the forced collection of taxes needed to support it—and you let the free market work. The free market solution means that anyone who thinks he has something to offer in the education field can set up a school—religious, technical, academic, or whatever else—and see if he can get enough people to keep him going. This means that every conceivable minority can be catered to without infringing on anybody else’s rights.
If parents want their children to have prayers in school, they send them to schools that have prayers in school. If they don’t want that then they choose a school that has no prayers. This is simply nothing to argue about. It becomes a non-issue.
The free market solution imposes its will on nobody. There is no way that the political solution can offer any comparable richness, diversity—or I believe in the end, quality.
Impossible, our school administrator said. But the next night my dream returned. In my dream, none of the predicted calamities fell on our heads when we abolished the public school system. Most of the teachers—the competent ones anyway—found jobs. Parents were more satisfied with their schools than they had ever been before. Our taxes were lower. The competition between schools raised the level of school services. Most of the needy people were helped to get an education for their children. We still don’t know what to do about the half-dozen families that refuse to educate their children—but I am not sure how children from such an environment would fare in any school system. The real estate bust never came, and practically everyone stayed on to see how the new system would work out—particularly with the incentive of lower taxes.
Over a longer period of time there will be some benefits and some disadvantages. We shall have to see. There may be an influx of childless people fleeing from high school taxes in other towns. Families with a large number of children may tend to move out and seek a better deal in those school-tax-system towns. However, the variety and quality of our privately run schools should attract to our town families interested in a quality education for their children.
As neighboring towns see how we have managed to cut taxes and improve our educational system at the same time, they may follow our example.
Impossible—the school administrator’s judgment wakes me up again. And indeed I shall have to stop dreaming. Our town’s school system really isn’t all that bad. There is some drug-dealing, but there are no rapes, murders, knifings, gang-fights or other murderous occurrences to speak of. Most of the students manage to graduate from high school.
But there are other towns in the United States where all these horrors are daily happenings, where the school corridors are little safer than World War I trenches, where school lavatories are unusable by decent students, where the education is so bad that a large percentage of the students graduate from high school without being able to read or write properly or even to locate where the United States is on a map of the world.
I still dream that sometime, somewhere in the United States, somebody is going to do something with the public school system that will be an example to the rest of the country.