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Friday, March 4, 2011

Free the Children, Cut the Budget

States have no business running schools.

Pundits like David Brooks of the New York Times lament that the deficit-cutting mood supposedly sweeping the United States is myopically targeting education in favor of more powerful constituencies. “If you look across the country, you see education financing getting sliced — often in the most thoughtless and destructive ways,” Brooks writes. “The future has no union.” In Washington, he adds, early-childhood programs might be slashed, and

Many governors of both parties are diverting money from schools in thoughtless and self-destructive ways. Hawaii decided to cut the number of days in the school year. Of all the ways to cut education, why on earth would you reduce student time in the classroom?

Texas is taking the meat cleaver approach. School financing will be cut by at least 13.5 percent, around $3.5 billion. About 85,000 new students arrive in Texas every year. There will be no additional resources to accommodate them.

To Brooks’s relief, the Obama administration has at least one voice of sanity:

Education Secretary Arne Duncan gave a superb speech in November called the New Normal. He observed that this era of austerity should be an occasion to increase productivity and cut the things that are ineffective.

As though a bureaucrat’s bromides about increasing productivity and reducing ineffectiveness stands a chance of righting what’s wrong with education. We’ve had quite a lot of that over the years, with little to show for it. Education budgets went up; the quality of education did not.


There’s a reason for that: bureaucracy. That’s the antonym of “competitive entrepreneurial undertaking.” If we’re truly in a budget-cutting mood and wish to breathe life into education at the same time, we should de-bureaucratize schools by putting them entirely into the entrepreneurial arena: the marketplace.

I do not mean vouchers or charter schools. At best they operate according to a constricted model of competition tended by education bureaucrats and legislative bodies. The central flaw in these “reforms” is taxpayer financing. As long as the money comes through government, demands will be made for schools to be accountable to government rather than parents and students, setting limits to competition. Tax financing also reduces individual responsibility, while limiting — because of the double payment — most people’s ability to break out of the system altogether.

Moreover, financing learning through the compulsion of taxation is perverse. Education should be a consensual relationship among parents, children, and (when necessary) formal teachers. I’m fond of Isabel Paterson’s questions to teachers in her book The God of the Machine: “Do you think nobody would willingly entrust his children to you or pay you for teaching them? Why do you have to extort your fees and collect your pupils by compulsion?”

What’s Really Radical?

No school taxes and no compulsory attendance. Sounds radical, but what’s really radical is the State’s asserting the power of parens patriae over children and forcing everyone to pay for the outrage. As education historian E. G. West noted, it did not take laws to achieve virtually universal education in the nineteenth century (among the free population). But it did take laws to give us schools that function like indoctrination centers, preaching the glory of government while preparing children to be quiescent taxpaying citizens who will take their place in industry, the bureaucracy, or the military. Today the goal is to train the personnel necessary to assure America’s status as the undisputed leader of the global economy, as though the world marketplace were a race among nations.

My references to competition, entrepreneurship, and markets do not imply that education should be provided by for-profit firms only or even predominantly. A freed education market would include nonprofits, co-ops, extended homeschooling, and things no one has thought of yet. The key is to liberate all participants from the heavy hand of bureaucracy. No authority should interpose itself between aspiring providers competing with one another and consumers of education services. Only then will the “discovery procedure” that F. A. Hayek identified with competition be fully ignited.

What about the Poor?

That’s the inevitable question. The irony is that poor children in this society have been treated disgracefully by government school authorities. It is sheer chutzpah for advocates of “public education” to say they worry about the poor after having inflicted and/or tolerated such abuse for so long.

The poor would stand a much better chance in a freed education environment. If some of the most destitute places on earth manage to have private for-profit schools for poor children, then so can the United States, especially if the shackles were removed. Of course, there would be far fewer poor people in a freed society.

Will School be separated from State any time soon? Unlikely. The public-school industry, including the unions and all the vendors selling things to school districts, is big, rich, and powerful. The education-industrial complex surely rivals the military-industrial complex in its capacity to consume tax revenues.

But if for no other reason, the dismal fiscal condition of the states makes this a good time to talk about separation. It certainly won’t happen if nobody ever mentions it.

How would we go about it? I’ve long thought the best way would be simply to turn each school over to the people who work in it. Let them run the schools and compete independently of government without tax revenues. An alternative would be to turn the schools over to the parents if they want them. Just get them away from the bureaucracy.

Brooks is right. Education is important – far too important to leave to politicians and bureaucrats.

  • Sheldon Richman is the former editor of The Freeman and a contributor to The Concise Encyclopedia of Economics. He is the author of Separating School and State: How to Liberate America's Families and thousands of articles.