This article is excerpted from LiberatED, a weekly email newsletter where FEE Senior Education Fellow Kerry McDonald brings you news and analysis on current education and parenting topics. Click here to sign up.
Many parents are not happy. They are upset because back-to-school masking policies are either too stringent or not stringent enough.
In one school district in Missouri, for example, a new mask mandate divided families and prompted some parents to remove their children from the local district school for private options. “We have been out all summer unmasked, at concerts, at the movies, at ball games with thousands of people!” We are looking at pulling our kids on Monday after we tour a private school here in St. Louis County,” one parent told Fox News this week.
Other parents in the district applauded the new mask mandate saying they would accept any policies that enable their kids to be back in school for full-time, in-person learning.
Meanwhile in Mississippi, a school district decided not to require masks this fall, prompting one father to say that he will now move to a new home in the district so that his kids can attend school mask-free. “I tend to lean more on the side of freedom than anything else," he told the Sun Herald. "I'm also concerned about what kind of precedent does that set to our children, when our children begin to be submissive to these mandates." Another parent said the mask-free policy is causing her to pull her child from the school district for a local private school that requires masking.
In suburban Tennessee, a school board meeting on Tuesday grew confrontational over the board’s decision to impose a school mask mandate, with attendees yelling in the parking lot “we will not comply.”
The back-to-school mask wars are the latest example of how government schooling breeds conflict and division. I wrote in June about a school board meeting in Virginia that ended in arrests, as tensions rose over critical race theory and curriculum in the local schools. “Whether it’s yesterday’s battles over prayer in school or today’s conflicts over critical race theory, public schooling causes people to fight. It’s a struggle between values and viewpoints that ends with one group imposing its will upon others. The curriculum that is adopted or the one that is shunned inevitably creates winners and losers.”
We see the same battles now with mask policies. It’s a tug-of-war between the parents demanding masks in schools and those demanding that masks be kept out of schools.
Like all such battles, the solution is education choice and freedom. In Florida, a mask stand-off between Governor Ron DeSantis, who declared that parents should be the ones to determine individually whether or not their children wear masks to school, and school districts who are ignoring him by imposing their own mask mandates, triggered an expansion of school choice policies in that state. DeSantis announced last week that the state’s Hope Scholarship vouchers would be available to parents who disagree with their district’s mandatory mask policies. They can use the voucher to enroll their child in another mask-free public school or a private school.
These vouchers should be available to all children all the time, regardless of the schooling battle du jour. Current education dollars should fund students instead of bureaucratic school systems, allowing parents to decide the best educational setting for their child, regardless of zip code. But that’s only the beginning.
The Nobel Prize-winning economist Milton Friedman, who first popularized the idea of education vouchers in his classic 1955 paper, believed that these school choice mechanisms were a first, but not final, step toward eliminating the government schooling monopoly and creating a robust free market in education. “We regard the voucher plan as a partial solution because it affects neither the financing of schooling nor the compulsory attendance laws. We favor going much farther,” Friedman and his economist wife Rose wrote in their 1980 book, Free to Choose.
By weakening the government schooling stranglehold and encouraging the growth of private education options for parents, schooling battles will disappear. Parents who don’t like the mask policies, curriculum approach, or ideological bent at one school will be free to choose a different school that is more aligned with their personal preferences.
This is the beauty of free markets that facilitate peaceful, voluntary exchange. Every day, we choose which shops to visit or which services to buy based on our own individual preferences and needs. In this coronavirus era, we may choose to enter stores that require masks or choose stores that don’t, depending on our own personal risk tolerance. The market works efficiently to meet varied consumer demand. It falters when the government steps in to issue mandates and apply coercion preventing private businesses to independently and imaginatively serve their customers.
As the renowned economist Friedrich Hayek wrote in The Constitution of Liberty: “The argument for liberty is not an argument against organization, which is one of the most powerful tools human reason can employ, but an argument against all exclusive, privileged, monopolistic organization, against the use of coercion to prevent others from doing better.”
Government is coercion, as more families are beginning to realize through heated arguments in their district schools. Peaceful, voluntary exchange occurs when the government gets out of the way and allows individuals to make their own choices in a robust free market of goods and services.
As the Friedmans wrote in Free to Choose: “The strong American tradition of voluntary action has provided many excellent examples that demonstrate what can be done when parents have greater choice.”
Fortunately, more parents may now be discovering that choice over coercion is the path forward for American education.
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