All Commentary
Thursday, October 1, 1998

Whose Kids Are They?

Compulsory Education Has Not Produced Universal Education

David Boaz is executive vice president of the Cato Institute and author of Libertarianism: A Primer (Free Press). This article is adapted from his foreword to the new edition of The Twelve-Year Sentence: Radical Views of Compulsory Schooling edited by William F. Rickenbacker (Fox and Wilkes).

Rereading The Twelve-Year Sentence a quarter-century after it was first published is an interesting experience. By many measures it would seem that the time is even more ripe to discuss the problems with compulsory schooling. Not a week goes by without another report on the declining or inadequate quality of the government schools. Polls show that public dissatisfaction continues to grow. Even as the schools fail to teach children reading, writing, and arithmetic, they are expanding their warrant into new areas.

Education theorists explain that we can no longer teach morality in the government schools because not all Americans hold the same moral values. Fair enough. But this turns out to be mere cover for a very different position: that the schools shouldn’t teach traditional morality, that is, the values of patriotism, free enterprise, sexual restraint, and especially traditional religion. In fact, today’s schools—especially in large metropolitan areas and university towns—vigorously push such politically charged moral values as anti-business environmentalism, welfare statism, multiculturalism, anti-racism, anti-sexism, “safe sex,” victimology, and faith in big government. The schools have not in fact become value-neutral, as bad as that would be; they have simply changed the particular morality they seek to impose on impressionable young minds. In the mid-1990s, one of the latest educational innovations is to require “community service” for high school graduation. (The advocates have learned to avoid the Orwellian term “mandatory volunteerism.”) So the compulsion is compounded; not only are children forced to attend school, ostensibly in order to prepare themselves for the adult world, now they are forced to labor on behalf of others.

The compulsion is also compounded in the 1990s as a result of teachers’ apparent inability to make their classes interesting. In the era of the therapeutic state, when children—especially young boys—are bored and restless in class, the solution is to declare them victims of attention-deficit disorder (ADD) and drug them with Ritalin. It makes me think there may be a great deal of wisdom in the words of an experienced teacher profiled on television: “We don’t need to get kids ready for school, we need to get schools ready for kids.”

Agitation for Change

In response to many of these problems, much agitation for educational change has arisen. Parents in many cities and states have demanded the right to send their children to any school, government or independent, that they choose, without having to pay extra for non-government education. A handful of legislatures have responded with “voucher,” or “school choice,” programs, and more are likely to do so in the near future. Other activists have tried to create more diversity within the government school system, with charter schools, magnet schools, and “public-school choice.” For-profit companies have undertaken to run some government schools. An uncertain number of children—perhaps as many as a million—are being educated outside of any formal school, as “homeschooling” has caught the imagination of hundreds of thousands of parents. A movement has even arisen to make education as independent of government as religion is. Sheldon Richman published Separating School and State: How to Liberate America’s Families in 1994, and about that time (but independently) the Separation of School and State Alliance was created.

But a few problems confront the enthusiast for educational freedom. First, despite all the agitation for reform, the government school system goes merrily on its way, collecting more tax dollars every year even in the face of swelling criticism. Second, few education reformers even think of challenging something as fundamental as compulsory schooling laws. To school critics of 25 years ago, today’s reforms would seem like rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic. Third, and most disconcertingly, despite all the concerns about declining quality and moral values in the government schools, they continue to enroll about 88 percent of American children, with about 11 percent attending private schools and 1 percent being homeschooled.

Given everything we have heard about the quality of government schools, why do the overwhelming majority of parents continue to send their children to them? Yes, it’s true that polls show most people think the nation’s schools are bad, but their own are pretty good. (But why do they think that?) And yes, people who are taxed to pay for a “free” service have less money available to purchase the service elsewhere. Even so, people who care about their children’s education ought to be inclined to sacrifice for it. Instead, the percentage of parents using private schools has remained virtually stable for 30 years.

It seems that advocates of educational freedom—and indeed advocates of education—must do more than criticize the existing system and offer policy reforms. They must exhort parents to exercise their responsibility for their children’s well-being. It can’t be enough to send one’s children to school, or even to move to a suburb with a reputation for good schools. Parents need to investigate whether the local schools are adequately preparing children for adulthood and are well suited to their children’s particular needs, and then consider other options if necessary. Along with “talk to your children about drugs,” we need public-service campaigns urging parents: “talk to your children about their schools; are they learning anything?”

Prospects for Radical Change

The papers in The Twelve-Year Sentence were prepared in 1972 and published in 1974, at the end of a heady decade of political and cultural turmoil. The prospects for radical change, even in such a pillar of the welfare state as compulsory schooling, must have seemed very real at the time. Today, in an era of peace and prosperity, radical change seems unlikely. But events have a way of surprising us, and economic and cultural changes often swamp mere politics. The globalization of the economy has forced new efficiencies on most of our industries, and it may yet demand that American workers and entrepreneurs find a decent education one way or another. Technology is revolutionizing every form of information transfer except schooling (and of course the U.S. Postal Service), and it’s likely that the schools won’t be impervious to change forever. In School’s Out: Hyperlearning, the New Technology, and the End of Education, Lewis J. Perelman suggests that trying to improve the government school system in the 1990s is like a great national effort to improve horses in the 1890s: it completely misses the revolutionary changes that are going to make schools obsolete in the near future.

Still, there are important philosophical issues at stake in the debate over compulsory schooling that should not be simply ignored as technology and economic change make the laws increasingly irrelevant. There have always been those who regarded children as collective property, to be shaped and molded according to the state’s needs. Benjamin Rush, a signer of the Declaration of Independence, is often quoted in this regard: “Let our pupil be taught that he does not belong to himself, but that he is public property. Let him be taught to love his family, but let him be taught at the same time that he must forsake and even forget them when the welfare of his country requires it.” German thinkers from Luther to Fichte to the Prussian monarchs developed a theory and practice of compulsory government schooling to serve the state. Horace Mann and other architects of the American compulsory-schooling system were admirers of the Prussian approach.

Today one rarely hears educators being as blunt as Rush, but his theme is still there. In 1981 William H. Seawell, a professor of education at the University of Virginia, told a crowd that “public schools promote civic rather than individual pursuits” and that “each child belongs to the state.” A Michigan school district more recently objected to a child’s being allowed to “escape” from his own district and attend a government school in a neighboring district.

And the will to power involved in the combination of compulsory schooling and government-run schools may have been summed up by Winnie Mandela, campaigning in 1994 in South Africa’s first all-races election. She promised “free and compulsory education” for all, then added, “Parents not sending their children to school will be the first prisoners of the ANC [African National Congress] government.” That would be a party-state that took indoctrination seriously.

Needed: A Theory of Children’s Rights

Educational libertarians can easily reject the claim that “each child belongs to the state.” But neither libertarianism nor any other political philosophy seems to have a well-thought-out theory of children’s rights. Few would argue that children have no rights, that they can be ignored or abused at will by their parents or by any other party. But on the other hand few would argue that children have the same rights as adults. So for the purposes of our discussion here, there are some crucial questions to be answered. Do children have the right to decide whether to go to school? At what age? If they have such a right, should it require a positive check-off—that is, children go to school unless they assert their right not to? And, conversely, do children have a right to be educated? If so, against whom is that right directed? Their parents? The state? And how much education are they entitled to?

A good philosophical case against compulsory education must rest on answers to such questions. Of course, many educational libertarians would point out that a good utilitarian case against compulsory schooling can be constructed without developing a full philosophical case. E. G. West has demonstrated, here and elsewhere, that before public schooling almost all children in Great Britain and the United States were being educated, and surely there is a presumption against state action when the need hasn’t been proved. H. George Resch would point to the difficulty of designing an adequate one-size-fits-all education for myriad diverse children. Joel Spring would argue that state education will necessarily serve the state and its ruling elites. Economists would point out the dismal record of monopolies and captive customers compared with competitive markets and consumers who are free to choose. Many educational critics would agree that, theory aside, in practice compulsory schooling has by no means produced universal education. A very practical argument against compulsory schooling for teenagers has been raised recently by the sociologist Jackson Toby: keeping in school students who don’t want to be there often leads to disruption and even violence, creating an atmosphere in which even the diligent students find it difficult to learn.

But perhaps the best argument against compulsory schooling is the one raised by Isabel Paterson in The God of the Machine, in the form of a question to educators who support compulsion: “Do you think nobody would willingly entrust his children to you or pay you for teaching them? Why do you have to extort your fees and collect your pupils by compulsion?”

  • David Boaz is the executive vice president of the Cato Institute and has played a key role in the development of the Cato Institute and the libertarian movement. He is the author of The Libertarian Mind: A Manifesto for Freedom and the editor of The Libertarian Reader.