All Commentary
Tuesday, September 1, 1998

Lessons from Homeschooling

Education Bureaucrats Specialize in Political Lobbying, Not Education

The June 28, 1998, New York Times reported that 56 percent of Massachusetts’ up-and-coming teachers failed their basic test in reading and writing. This result means that well over half of Massachusetts’ freshly minted college graduates with degrees in education cannot competently read and write.

Can you guess the response of the Massachusetts State School Board? They re-graded the tests on a curve so that no more than 44 percent would fail. In short, they cheated. They dishonestly, and for totally self-serving reasons, rigged their system so that its own abject failures would be better masked. But camouflaging a beast that grows larger and uglier by the day is difficult.

As shown by the furor that this episode caused in Massachusetts, Americans are increasingly aware that government education specialists in charge of K-12 government schools are lousy educators. This awareness is prompting parents to act rationally in a way that provides the best evidence yet that education bureaucrats cannot educate namely, more and more parents are homeschooling their children. In 1980 only 10,000 children were schooled at home. Today that figure stands at about one million. This means that fully 2 percent of all children are now homeschooled. And this number continues to grow, even though public education is “free.”

While some parents find intrinsic merit in schooling their children at home, there can be little doubt that homeschooling wouldn’t be on the rise if government schools truly educated children. Adam Smith explained why in his discussion of the causes of the wealth of nations.

Smith understood that we would be wretchedly poor if we were each self-sufficient: if we each built our own house, grew our own food, and wove our own cloth. So, Smith correctly taught that prosperity springs from specialization guided by market prices (which, in turn, arise when consumers are free to choose how to spend their money and entrepreneurs are free to explore different means of better serving consumers).

The dynamic of a market economy is that specialization creates prosperity, and freedom encourages entrepreneurs to discover ever-newer avenues for specialization, thus increasing prosperity even more. Consider, for example, that today we spend less time than we did just a few years ago preparing our own meals (we eat out more often), changing the oil in our cars (Jiffy Lube and Pep Boys change it for us), and washing our own dishes (electric dishwashers made by specialist producers do more of this humdrum chore). A sure sign of a healthy economy is its increasing specialization of productive activities. But in K-12 education, the rise in homeschooling means that specialization is retreating—something that would not happen if the education market worked.

Sending kids to school enjoys at least two potential advantages over homeschooling. First, by not homeschooling, both parents can work at jobs for which they possess special skills. Such employment raises household income. Second, and more importantly, parents naturally want their kids to be educated by those who do the best job of it. Those who are specially trained to educate children should be able to teach children many subjects more effectively than can typical parents. Parents will naturally seek such specialists for their children’s education just as these parents seek competent healthcare specialists for their children’s health.

But parents today increasingly avoid “education specialists” because these alleged specialists are so bad that non-specialist parents outperform them at the task of education. The average home-schooled child scores in the 85th percentile on standardized achievement tests a full 35 points higher than the score registered by the average public-school student.

These homeschooling results are remarkable. In most industries, specialists are immensely better than non-specialists at performing their specialties. Intel is not just a bit better than I am at designing computer chips; it’s much better. Dentists are not just marginally better than I am at removing wisdom teeth; they are much better. For me to resort to designing my own microchips or pulling my own teeth would require that specialists in these fields become so grossly ineffectual that it would abuse the language to continue calling them specialists.

Let me be clear: it isn’t the case that K-12 education bureaucrats have no specialized skills. Indeed, they are exquisitely specialized. The problem is that their specialty isn’t education; it’s political lobbying. The education elite are superbly skilled at extracting from legislatures special favors such as restraints on parental choice and ever-more-generous budget allotments from the public till.

Ironically, these special political favors keep educators from specializing in education. Imagine that the only source of professional haircutting is government-operated hair-care salons that are funded exclusively with tax dollars doled out directly to the bureaucrats in charge of each salon. Imagine also that each citizen can use a salon free of charge, but is assigned exclusively to the salon nearest to his or her home. If this were how professional hair-care specialists were organized and compensated, these specialists’ salaries would be determined not by competition and consumer choice, but by politicians. Hair-stylists’ workloads and incomes would then depend only upon their skills at political lobbying and uttering clever sound bites for the news media. No premium would attach to quality hair-styling skills. Hair stylists inevitably would lose much of their ability to cut and style hair as they focus their energies increasingly on protecting and expanding their special political prerogatives. More and more people would cut and style their own hair at home.

As silly as the above scenario for hair care sounds, it describes today’s method of providing K-12 education. To eliminate competition among suppliers of K-12 education, government erects costly barriers preventing parents from moving their children from bad to better schools. In response, increasing numbers of parents who cannot afford private education do the job themselves. Unlike wealthy parents (who can afford private-school tuition even after being bilked for the taxes necessary to support government schools), poorer parents are denied the fruits of specialization in education.

Only by dissolving the bonds between school and state will K-12 education achieve its maximum potential. The resulting increase in parental choice will eliminate the rewards for those who specialize in lobbying, and multiply the rewards for those who effectively specialize in teaching. Teachers who truly teach, rather than lecture to captive audiences or lobby for political favors, will again be trusted to educate America’s children.

  • Donald J. Boudreaux is a senior fellow with the F.A. Hayek Program for Advanced Study in Philosophy, Politics, and Economics at the Mercatus Center at George Mason University, a Mercatus Center Board Member, and a professor of economics and former economics-department chair at George Mason University.