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It's No Manufactured Crisis

Sheldon Richman

A recently published book claims that the growing discontent about public, or government, schools is the result of a “manufactured crisis.” The authors of the book by that name, David C. Berliner and Bruce J. Biddle, maintain that there is no evidence that the schools have declined since the golden era of the 1950s or earlier decades. That being the case, they say, radical reform of education is unwarranted. They go on, perhaps inconsistently, to call for their own reforms, including more money for the public schools, but leave that aside. Let’s accept their dubious thesis purely for the sake of argument. What’s wrong with it?

It’s a non sequitur. It implies that the only reason to consider radically changing the schools is the quality of the education. But that is not the only reason, and it is arbitrary to assume so. In other words, even if—and this is an oversized if—we could expect no improvement in education from radical restructuring, there would still be an incontrovertible case for it. We advocates of total privatization of education must make that clear.

There is only one path that radical restructuring can take. As we all know, the word radical refers to root. What is at the root of so-called public education? Simply this: someone other than parents makes all the big decisions about children’s education. Think about it: government officials determine where a child goes to school, how many hours a day, how many days a week, how many weeks a year, and how many years. Those officials determine what the child will study and when. (On what grounds are all those elements decreed to be the same for all children?) Sure, some minor variation has been allowed here and there as complaints against the schools have mounted. But at its core the system has not changed since the 1840s when Horace Mann’s first Prussianized common schools came into being in Massachusetts.

School officials never tire of saying they need the support of parents. They mean that parents must make sure their children do their homework and listen to the teacher and the principal. In other words, the schools want the parents to be cheerleaders. Cheerleaders of course stand on the sidelines. Oh, yes, parents also get to vote for the school board in democratic elections. Democracy is that system of political governance in which the ayes have it and the nays get it.

Why do we tolerate a system in which parents are shoved aside in one of the most important matters affecting their children? Partly because people have been persuaded that education is too complicated for lay parents. Experts are required. That is nonsense, of course, but the school lobby has effectively propagandized the American people for about 150 years.

Thus, radical restructuring would strike at the root: forced parental irresponsibility. It would restore responsibility by putting the decisions back into the hands of parents. With respect to their children’s education, they would trade their cheerleader’s pom-poms for the coach’s whistle. That’s as it should be.

Sue Blevins, a medical writer, has suggested a valuable distinction that fully applies to education. She says that true reform would establish not choice but freedom. At first that may sound like a distinction without a difference. It’s not. Choice has become the brand name for political contrivances under which people are permitted to choose from a menu of options drawn up by bureaucrats. By definition, a menu is limited. You can’t have what’s not on the menu. Choice is arbitrarily constricted. It is an illusion of freedom. The problem is that the authors of the menu act as if they and only they know enough to decide what goes on the menu and what does not.

In contrast to choice, freedom is open-ended. It enables people to engage in what Israel Kirzner calls entrepreneurial discovery. How do we know that some unlikely entrepreneur won’t offer an educational service that is precisely what a particular child needs and his parents want? We don’t. Choice precludes that option. Freedom does not.

The current system, in which parents are on the sidelines, also makes possible those grand experiments involving the latest pseudoscientific theories being ground out of the schools of education and departments of sociology. Last year the state of California confessed that its decade-long experiment with the whole-language method of reading instruction was a failure. It was, the superintendent of public instruction said, an honest mistake, and she was sorry. Can you imagine an error afflicting millions of children over ten years in the context of freedom-based education? Impossible, precisely because decisions would be made at the family level, where the number of children is small and the feedback is fast and accurate.

Enforced parental irresponsibility and fitful experimentation on children—those are the hallmarks of the government school system. To put it bluntly, public education treats parents like children and children like guinea pigs.

No wonder there is every reason to believe that parent-child-driven education is superior to a government-driven education. No wonder homeschoolers do so well. But even if that were not so, it would in no way upset the argument that parents have a right to make the education decisions for their children. They have a right to freedom even if it could be demonstrated that government schools were better!

The upshot is that parents not only have the right to choose a better education for the children; they also have the right to define the words “better education” for their children. Conversely, the opponents of freedom don’t merely demand the authority to guarantee all children an education; they also demand a monopoly on defining the word. The two must always go together. That’s what’s wrong with the system.

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