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Friday, February 19, 2010

We Don’t Need No State Education

Rethinking school.

Hey! Teachers! Leave them kids alone! –Rogers Waters, Pink Floyd

Someone recently said that a particular elementary charter school is a big improvement over government schools because the kids have longer days there and are already thinking about college. I wonder if that’s really an improvement. Kids spend too much time in the authoritarian classroom environment as it is. Homeschoolers are proud of how little time they have to put in to cover the state-required subjects.

And the “everybody must go to college” doctrine is hardly a blessing. How many young people are delivering pizzas with a diploma on the wall and a big student loan keeping them up at night? It’s true that the watered-down, increasingly worthless bachelor’s degree today is expected for nearly every job, but let’s not fool ourselves: For most grads it’s little more than a signal to potential employers that they had the perseverance to get up early four years running and jump through all the required hoops. That tells a human-resources (that term!) director enough about an applicant to separate her from a rival who didn’t do those things. It doesn’t say anything about what she knows or can do.

Charter schools and vouchers are much talked about, but they are objectionable on multiple counts. For one thing, they accept the premise that taxpayers should pay for schooling and that cross-subsidization is something government should compel. These things open the door to government control of private, independent schools. Yes, private schools are already regulated by every state, but they are not as regulated as the government’s own schools are. If the voucher plan is ever embraced in a big way, we can expect elaborate criteria for determining which schools may accept vouchers—and which may not.

Advocates of school choice ought to take seriously what some statists have long recognized. The Democrat Leadership Council pointed out some years ago that “A public school is not defined by who ‘owns’ it, but rather by two features: universal access and accountability to the public for results.” Therefore it matters little “whether public schools are run by a local school board, a group of parents, a teachers union, a Fortune 500 company, or the Little Sisters of the Poor.”

In other words, once “public money” is flowing to private schools, they are no longer really private. The government’s hooks will be firmly set, in the name of “public accountability.” “Follow the money” is not a bad piece of advice, but in this matter a better one is: Trace the money back to its source. That will provide good a indication of what to expect of its recipients.

Competition and Entrepreneurship

As long as politicians, bureaucrats, and anointed education experts control the money, competition and entrepreneurship will never reach full blossom. Competition, Hayek taught, is a discovery process, so until entrepreneurship can operate without political inhibition, we won’t know what we are missing. Providers of educational services — must they be schools? — should be accountable not to bureaucrats but to customers — parents and their children. Yet the various “school choice” plans maintain the State as the ultimate judge.

When education entrepreneurs need worry only about actual and potential customers who are laying out their own money — and not State functionaries — the political inhibitions will be gone, or at least will begin to fade. (As for the poor, see this.) Creativity will be unleashed and children’s individuality respected. Joseph Priestley, the scientist, classical-liberal political philosopher, and religious Dissenter wrote in An Essay on the First Principles of Government, and on the Nature of Political, Civil, and Religious Liberty,

[I]f we argue from the analogy of education to other arts which are most similar to it, we can never expect to see human nature, about which it is employed, brought to perfection, but in consequence of indulging unbounded liberty, and even caprice in conducting it…. From new, and seemingly irregular methods of education, perhaps something extraordinary and uncommonly great may spring. At least there would be a fair chance for such productions; and if something odd and excentric [sic] should, now and then, arise from this unbounded liberty of education, the various business of human life may afford proper spheres for such excentric geniuses.

The last thing we should expect from carefully guided “school choice” plans delivered by legislators and education experts is “unbounded liberty, and even caprice.”

It is only once education is free of the State’s yoke that we may begin to rethink the whole idea of school. It certainly needs rethinking. In the nineteenth century a Prussian-trained elite set out to take education away from parents so that children could be molded into homogeneous “good citizens” ready to take their designated places in the factories, bureaucracy, and military. Schools were correctional institutions. Things have changed little since then. Today the rationale for control by an elite is to prepare children for the competitive “global marketplace” that America’s leaders are constructing and determined to lead. (It’s hardly a bona fide free market.) The current White House occupant lectured the children last September that if they do poorly in school, they let their country down. (Conservatives applauded that message, relieved that Obama didn’t pitch his health care plan.)

From the beginning the government’s schools were dressed in the mantle of science. But as philosopher Bruce Goldberg wrote in Why Schools Fail, it is pseudoscience:

What one finds in schools is, not scientifically justified activities, but an assortment of tasks based on various educators’ subjective views of what knowledge is “worthwhile” or “nutritious” or “civilizing.” Those views are then transformed into scientific truths by labeling them as such. And, finally, the claim is made that children are being shaped, for their own good, by a process that has been shown scientifically to be indispensable for proper mental development. In every one of its guises that claim — and the authoritarian treatment of children based on it — is false.

But its falsity did not prevent huge, impersonal schools bureaucracies and dehumanizing schools from being built, mills for which our children are little more than grist. Finally ending the State’s monopoly — which means taking away the money — will let us bring education back to human scale, with all the respect for individuality that this implies.

  • 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.