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Friday, April 21, 2023

It’s Time to Separate School and State

The public school system is a failure and ripe for replacing.

Image credit: Andrea Piacquadio via Pexels

The state-run school system as it stands is a one-size-fits-all monstrosity which crowds out private alternatives and spreads socialistic and anti-Christian propaganda. It’s time to think bigger than Friedman’s school vouchers, it’s time to separate school from state. 

Crowding Out

If there is any stigma against private schools, it is their cost versus the public system. This leaves room for the public-school supporter to claim: “if there was a market for low cost, private education, it would be provided but since it is not widely met, the general consensus must remain with the public system.” The argument would be correct but for one detail: the market is being distorted by the political power of the state, preventing the entry of the firms needed to fill the void. 

Public schools are funded through the taxes of a city’s citizens, which necessarily means that taxpayers without children enrolled will also pay for their upkeep; even taxpayers without children at all are subsidizing the public education of those using the system. As a result, the cost of public education is artificially low to the parents using it, a situation that could not be replicated in a free market. If the state system was a private enterprise, it would not last one year before going bankrupt since it can only survive on the subsidies provided by taxation, by political power. 

Private enterprise is enormously competitive, and when unleashed, it can nearly work miracles, but what it cannot do is compete effectively with state-run firms which can bankroll their losses with taxation. As a result, it is not currently possible for private schools to fill the same niche as the public ones, they must branch out and specialize to offer a fundamentally different good than the one offered by the state. KIPP charter schools as explored by Thomas Sowell in his new book Charter Schools and their Enemies promise better academic results, and Parochial schools promise a traditional and religious education. All of these are fundamentally different goods than the one provided by the state system, and this is a place to start. 

So long as the public system is able to pass on its losses to the taxpayers, there will be few cracks in the state’s monopolistic control of the industry. Should the edifice finally break and a state decides to take the plunge into full privatization, the market will surge back with a vengeance and provide more options, and do so more affordably than is currently available. 

Instilling the Ethics of the State

The state always and everywhere aims at monopolizing education and there is a non-benevolent reason for this: youth are impressionable and ideas inculcated early are difficult to uproot. If the state can decide what the next generation learns, it can instill a statist ethic and worldview which quells resistance before it would take hold. State-run education is not an act of charity in practice so much as a defense mechanism against free thinking.

Nothing is new about the state looking to reproduce itself and quell resistance early through education. The tactic was an invention of Prussia’s at the close of the 18th Century. Vladimir Lenin, a man whose inclinations towards class and production were much different than the Prussians is popularly, possibly apocryphally, quoted as saying: “give me four years to teach the children, and the seed I have sown shall never be uprooted.” Whether the verbiage is precise or not, it is certainly consistent with the maximization of the state requisite for his socialism to take root. What Lenin and the Prussians had in common was the state; whatever their differences, they were both arch-statists and sought to instill the state’s ethics into the next generation. 

The state instilling obedience and fomenting socialism through schools is hardly surprising. What is relatively new is an all out assault on the norms of western civilization.

In the past it was held that the color of one’s skin was irrelevant, and what truly counted was the content of one’s character. Indeed, if there is to be a racially neutral society, there is no other way to proceed, but as of late, activists and public intellectuals have brought race back with a vengeance. 

The 1619 Project, which posits among other things that the American Revolution was not a libertarian secession event for the rights of man, but was somehow a defense of slavery, that President Lincoln was a fanatical racist, and that capitalism, the free system of labor, was built on the unfree system of labor, slavery, is now taught in schools across the country. Instead of good scholarship giving reasoned debates, the 1619 Project finds no redeeming quality in Americans, singles out those who happened to have been born with white skin for racial abuse, and counsels the only answer to be a mephistophelian tearing down of everything that exists. 

Children being uniquely impressionable are vulnerable to having their minds harnessed and hearts filled with hate by this curriculum. Parents by keeping their children in public schools risk having their offspring be turned against them by the hate mongering activists. It should not be controversial to allow there to be options which do not indoctrinate children with racial hatred or gender confusion, and this is the niche of the free market. Stopping the ahistorical and hateful 1619 Project from being a common curriculum is a step in the right direction but it is not the solution to rising racial tension: the real answer is the privatization of education to allow for other options. In essence, if parents do not want their children subjected to race and gender talk at school, they are entirely within their right to demand that, and more private alternatives would deliver the goods. 

Friedman’s Vouchers

In many libertarian and conservative circles, Milton Friedman’s voucher plan is considered to be the gold standard in free market school solutions. Instead of the current system, Friedman suggested giving a voucher for each student which could be used at public or private schools, thus opening the latter up to federal funding and presumably, helping them proliferate.

State money comes with strings attached. One can hardly imagine the state not coming out with guidelines of institutions eligible for the vouchers which presupposes the state setting universal standards and guidelines for all schools public and private. A consequence of the Friedman plan is total control by the state on what is and is not acceptable anywhere, not just for public schools. This would start out with relatively benign concerns about safety and mathematics standards, but would undoubtedly extend into peripheral areas which there is much disagreement about. Schools which do not provide separate bathrooms for transgender students, fail to teach a curriculum of racialized history, or even all boys or all girls schools would sooner or later find themselves on the chopping block. 

If vouchers are introduced into the economics of private schools not now accustomed to this cash inflow, they will quickly build it into their operating costs, and soon it will not be a windfall but a necessity for operation. Work expands to fit the budget allowed for it. It follows that losing these vouchers would be a calamity, even if the institution had previously operated without them, and many if not most, would bend their rules and principles to keep the state dollars flowing. Surely there would be some obstinate private schools content to lose funding rather than accommodate the state’s demands, but this cannot be expected of the majority, since this is, after all, a business. 

Libertarians and conservatives taken with the Friedman model are not thinking boldly enough. The answer is not get the state to fund the private schools too, but privatize the public school infrastructure, remove the regulatory burden on starting up a new school, and achieve the total separation of education and state. 

The Separation of Education and State

By removing the state from education, a number of things will happen: the absolute size of the behemoth will shrink, teacher’s unions will have less power over the student’s educational continuity, different sorts of education will be offered, and Christians, rightists, libertarians, anti-statists, and free thinkers will not be forcibly subjected to the state’s propaganda. 

Without the need to oversee the education of most children in the third largest country on earth, the size of the state will decrease. There will be no need for legions of teachers to be employed by the state, but most of them will not be out of the job. They will form the backbone of the new, private teaching workforce.

Without massive public school districts, strikes by teacher’s unions will be less likely and less destructive, making the recent Los Angeles teacher’s strike—which took 420,000 students out of the classroom—next to impossible. Presumably, with the regulatory environment lightened, there will be a return of yellow dog contracts which would prevent school employees from joining unions at all as a condition of employment. 

In industries as complicated as education, no two firms will be alike (as opposed to snowplowing firms, which are quite alike). This diversity ensures that a greater variety of goods will be offered, allowing parents to have more control over what and how their children learn. Some schools will hone mathematics and raise engineers quicker and cheaper, others will bring the humanities to the forefront and build a new cadre of well-rounded citizens to think up tomorrow’s big ideas, still others will provide a strictly Christian or otherwise religious education and offer a whole host of classes on theology. The possibilities are as endless as they are exciting. 

Finally, those who dissent from the statist, racialized, and anti-Christian outlook which has seized the public schools will not be compelled to attend them. There will be schools modeled on free men and free markets, God and country, or any other motifs there is a market for. America’s vibrant Church community will undoubtedly get in on the action and build self-funding schools of their own as the Catholics have been doing for over a hundred years. As a bonus, with the multiplicity of firms, it will be impossible for the socialistic, racialized, and anti-Christian mindset to invade all schools as it currently does under the state system. How would it do so without an easy point of entry at the administrative level and with renewed resistance from empowered private schools?

Considering all these points, the case for total liberty in education is not a hard one to make. Indeed, the hard sell is maintaining the statist system as it currently stands. In light of failing schools, teacher’s strikes, anti-Christian propaganda across the board, and skyrocketing costs, a reasonable person might say the statist system is a failure and ripe for replacing. Total liberty in education is an idea whose time has come, America deserves it. It is time for a separation of education and state.

Editor’s Note: This article has been revised from an earlier version that was published mistakenly.


  • Cruz Marquis is a former US Marine, a current economics student, and the administrator of TheConservativeCritique.com.