A Reviewers Notebook: The Public School Monopoly

If, as Leonard Read has suggested, the “freedom philosophy” calls for the separation of school and state, we are in for a struggle that will last well into the next century. The sixteen essays collected by Robert B. Everhart for his The Public School Monopoly: A Critical Analysis of Education and the State in American Society, published by the Pacific Institute for Public Policy Research of San Francisco and marketed by the Ballinger Publishing Company of 54 Church Street, Cambridge, Massachusetts 02138, a Harper and Row subsidiary (583 pp., $30.00 cloth, $13.95 paper), offer little hope that government can be effectively denied a licensing function that makes even the most independent of our private schools subject to political will.

There are, to be sure, some mitigating factors—the “monopoly” alluded to in the Everhart title must currently contend with the struggles between the “federalizers” and the proponents of local state and community control; and there are some 5 million children in private schools, many of which are church affiliated. As always, opportunities for freedom lurk in the interstices of a diversified system. But in our inflationary age the money for education tends to be sopped up by the public educators. Private schools can hope for vouchers or tax credits or outright state grants (as in British Columbia), but the price that must be paid for such help includes a certain conformity to quota system thinking about sex and minorities.

Some of Everhart’s contributors come close to saying that the public school must always be an instrument of control in the hands of a ruling class. If what these contributors are trying to tell us is that the schools, in any given period, will reflect a prevailing ethos, they are obviously right. Historically, this has not made for any oppressive uniformity in American schooling—the “ruling class” in nineteenth- and early twentieth-century society believed in Horatio Alger individualism, and our teachers took it for granted that what the Constitution guaranteed was freedom of opportunity, not a God-given right to leveling “entitlements.”

Rule by Professionals

When the ethos changed with the rise of the “regulative” state, the schools changed with it. Curiously, this did not put “political content” into the schools. One of Everhart’s contributors, Joel Spring, complains that the popular belief in professional “experts” breeds an apolitical citizenry that is willing to “let George do it.” This has “stripped the schools of meaningful political content and directed their purposes toward the production of apolitical citizens who would accept a managed political and social system.”

What Joel Spring is saying is paradoxical. Ideology has been banished from the public schools in order to facilitate the rule of professionals in our society. This amounts to a triumph for the technocratic ideologist.

“A free society,” says Mr. Spring, “cannot afford to let schooling become an instrument of power.” Hispitch for an expanded private school system is implicit in his statement that “it is now important for society to consider whether or not it wants to continue with government- operated schools which are used to justify the power of those who control the schools.”

Some of the Everhart contributors hope that the current revolt against over-regulation will encourage diversification by way of tuition tax credits, vouchers and tax codes. But Michael Apple, who is something of a leftist ideologist in his thinking, fears that the use of vouchers may “fragment” specific “progressive” movements. If “pluralism” is what we are after in an educational system, what is the objection to “fragmentation?” Do we want cookie-cutter schools?

Vouchers and Tax Credits

The most interesting essays in the Everhart book are those written by E. G. West (“The Prospect for Education Vouchers”), Donald Erickson (“Disturbing Evidence About the ‘One Best System’”), and Roger Freeman (“Education Tax Credits”). Mr. West has high hopes that the $500 grant scheme as established in British Columbia will enable us to test predictions about whether parents can exercise the responsibility of free choice in their children’s education once they are allowed the resources to do so. Mr. Erickson has his doubts about the “one best system” of the public schools, but he is not too sure that the British Columbia use of government grants to private schools will prove helpful to private education in the long run.

Teachers with “two masters,” the province and the parent, may be torn in different directions. They may become less committed to parents and eventually to students. Erickson fears the growth of teacher “union mentality.” And parents, “sensing more and more that their contributions and involvement are not only unneeded, but resented, may withdraw to the sidelines . . . Students, treated more like patients under treatment than members of a functioning community, may perform ever more inauthentically . . . Eventually, private schools could lose all the social climate characteristics that once distinguished them from public schools.”

What Erickson wishes to retain are the things that “money cannot buy, such as commitment, a consensus, community, accomplishment, and exceptionality.” He hopes that “Canada’s experiments will provide clues for the improvement of all schools,” but wishes that British Columbia had chosen to help private schools by tax credits going to parents instead of by direct government grants to the schools.

Partisans of public education fear that any help to private schools will tend to impoverish the public school system. If private education were to become universal, this would obviously be true. But if it is just a question of enabling some private schools to survive in an inflationary epoch in which parents can’t afford to pay twice for education, the granting of $450 to $500 in tax credits per private school pupil would actually be of financial benefit to the public schools.

Roger Freeman’s arithmetic shows why this is true. It takes $2,200 of taxpayer money to support a child in public school. A $500 grant enabling a student to shift to a private school would leave the public school system $1,700 extra to spend on the students who stick to state-run schools. With more money to be spent on fewer pupils, the public school could supply better teaching and smaller classes.

Mr. Freeman tackles the question of the constitutionality of vouchers and tax credits to Catholic parents head on. Since the First Amendment guarantees freedom of religion as well as freedom of speech, how can the courts assert the unconstitutionality of help to Catholic parents in retaining some of their own money for church-supported education? People now get tax credits for donations to churches without being accused of helping the government to “establish” a state religion. Where is the courts’ consistency?

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