All Commentary
Saturday, April 1, 1995

Separating School and State

Public Education Will Always Underperform

Sheldon Richman bases his case against government education on its philosophical incompatibility with a free society and its inherent inability to produce results as good as a free market in education would produce. His strategy may well win more converts to freedom’s side and win them more quickly than the strategy that begins with an effort to prove that public schools are declining. When a Gerald Bracey rushes to the defense of public education with a statement such as “American schools have never achieved more than they currently achieve,” the rebuttal should be that it doesn’t matter whether that is true or not. We should argue, as Richman does, that public education has and always will underperform because it severs the link between satisfied customer and revenue for the provider. For anyone who is going to be debating this issue, Richman’s book is a gold mine full of attacks and counterattacks that will leave statist opponents spluttering.

One of Richman’s most penetrating points is that the traditional idea of schools as developers of young human beings is flawed. Members of the education establishment see their role as shaping children, which almost invariably entails molding them into obedient servants of the state. Richman challenges that idea. “[S]chools do not—and should not—develop human beings. It has long been popular to think of education that way. That, I believe, is wrong. Human beings develop themselves—if they develop at all. To grow, children need assistance; specifically, they need information and good examples from adults. But they do not need adults or institutions to develop them into human beings. This is not just semantics. The common conception of education casts children in a fundamentally passive role. They are empty vessels that only adults with special skills—teachers—can fill.”

How, then, should we view education? Richman answers, “Education should be seen as a way of encouraging the child’s natural curiosity. That change in focus automatically makes the child the active party in the enterprise. Children come into the world thirsting for knowledge about their surroundings. The educational process needs only to abstain from killing that curiosity. Each child is unique. The last thing he or she needs is a procrustean school. The things that interest politicians and educational professionals, such as national standards, are so many distractions.”

That, of course, is precisely why we must separate school and state. People cannot find the optimal ways of educating children if they are constrained by laws, taxes, and regulations. Free economies are always coming up with new products that serve people’s wants while centrally planned ones inhibit progress and leave people with a lifetime of “take-it-or-leave-its.” (Can anyone name one product that makes life more pleasant that originated under Communism?) A free market in education would maximize each parent’s ability to find the kinds of educational services that are best suited to his children.

Richman gives readers an enlightening overview of the history of American education. He points. out that American society was highly literate in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, prior to the advent of tax-financed schools and compulsory education laws. It took the enemies of freedom several decades to get their foot in the door, but by the 1940s, the first public school systems had been established in the United States, modeled after the authoritarian Prussian system. There was no widespread public dissatisfaction with our educational free market, but a small number of influential “reformers” wanted to try their hand at shaping the youth of the nation. Youngsters would be taught, first and foremost, what to think, to be obedient citizens, to pay taxes and fight wars when commanded to. If children happened to learn how to think, that was beside the point.

Richman devotes a chapter to the arguments of opponents of public education. This chapter, one of the most useful in the whole book, is chock full of quotable material from great thinkers who foresaw the dangers of statist education. The famous English scientist Joseph Priestley was an opponent, as were the German philosopher William von Humboldt and English philosophers Herbert Spencer and Auberon Herbert. Richman also gives American critics their due. This chapter allows the reader to see how little the debate has changed over a period of nearly two centuries. Most of the objections to public education which are voiced today were made long ago; most modern arguments in its defense were refuted long ago.

Richman convincingly argues that nothing short of the complete depoliticization of education will rescue it from its current degraded state. He contends that the proposals, supported by many free marketeers, for vouchers, contracting out, charter schools, and other marginal reforms will do little if any good as long as the state is still the major player in the field of education. We need to stop wasting our efforts on trying to untie the Gordian Knot of public education. There is but one solution to the crisis: the tie between school and state must be cleanly cut.

  • George Leef is the former book review editor of The Freeman. He is director of research at the John W. Pope Center for Higher Education Policy.

  • 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.