Enterprising Education: Doing Away with the Public School System
by Walter Block and Andrew Young
[Posted on Saturday, August 19, 2006]
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Besides national defense, no government-provided service enjoys as much exemption from scrutiny as the provision and subsidization of primary public education. Even presumed champions of the free market, such as Milton Friedman, support the government subsidization of education through high school:
We have always been proud, and with good reason, of the widespread availability of schooling to all and the role that public schooling has played in fostering the assimilation of newcomers into our society, preventing fragmentation and divisiveness, and enabling people from different cultural and religious backgrounds to live together in harmony. (Friedman and Friedman, 1979, pp. 140–141)
The very suggestion that government should be removed entirely from the realm of education is either taken as irrational and malicious or viewed as foolhardy and quixotic. This seems very peculiar when considering that the critics of the present state of public education appear on both sides of the political spectrum. Still, the overwhelming sentiment, ubiquitous in both the general citizenry and academia, is that while public education may need to be reformed, it still should be guaranteed “free” to all by government.
Education, like any other service, cannot be provided more efficiently than via the market.
Contrary to most modern arguments claiming to favor the “privatization” of schools, we do not view the government contracting of private companies, the issuance of government vouchers for payment of education, or the direct subsidization of private institutions as free-market solutions.
Indeed, the only free-market solution is the abolition of all governmental ties to primary education.
Education is a Service
Primary education — i.e., that which begins in grammar school and continues up through high school — is a service like any other and can be allocated through the market and the price system. Parents, in general, would like to provide education for their children. Teachers, administrators, and owners of school buildings will provide this service to these children as long as they are compensated for their labors. When a parent approaches an institute of learning, he values the service offered. The school, drawn into the industry by the desire for profit, incurs costs in providing its service. It will only accept a price greater than or equal to these costs. Likewise, the parent will only offer to pay a price less than or equal to his valuation of the education rendered. If a price is determined that is satisfactory to both parties, an exchange will occur and the child will be provided with the service. In this straightforward way, familiar to every economist and intuitive to nearly everyone else, the market can provide primary education just as it provides hair styling, automotive repair, and the innumerable other services that people bargain to provide and receive.
Despite virtually omnipresent dogma, there is no simple explanation as to why government provision of primary education must be substituted for private alternatives.
Education is a service, and innumerable services are being provided by the market at any given moment. For society to hold to, and tax from individuals the resources for, government provision of primary education, there must be a justification. If it can be satisfactorily articulated, then, and only then, would government provision of primary education be legitimate.
What are the arguments in favor of government-provided primary education?
They are as follows:
- It is a necessary aspect of democracy and, paradoxically, the citizenry must be taxed for that system to secure their own freedom.
- The market would not provide an equal opportunity for and quality of primary education to everyone.
- Education is an example of an external economy; market provision would therefore be under optimal.
Let us consider each.
Necessary to “Freedom”?
The view that primary education should be available to all through a public system has been made inseparable from the concept of a republican society over the years. Pierce (1964, pp. 3–4) provides a historical demonstration:
Herein originated a new concern for education expressed by Thomas Jefferson in his belief that people could not govern themselves successfully unless they were educated…. This concept has gone through several stages of evolution — from Jefferson’s idea that if people were to vote intelligently they must be educated as a means of survival in a world of competing ideologies.
|“Despite virtually omnipresent dogma, there is no simple explanation as to why government provision of primary education must be substituted for private alternatives.”
This view of education as catalyst for successful democratic government has metamorphosed through the passing of time into a view of education as a veritable necessary condition of freedom. For this expansion to occur, the meaning of freedom had to be modified. As Graham (1963, pp. 45–46) states, people might mistakenly, “interpret freedom in terms of their right to criticize and to choose their masters — the men for whom they work, the politicians who direct their public affairs, the newspapers, books, speeches, and television programs that influence their thinking.” But a more correct definition, “for a democratic society would recognize the need for authority in any social group and equate freedom with the right to participate in power” (Graham, 1963, pp. 45–46). To participate in the power (i.e., the representative nature of American government) citizens must have information, ergo to educate is a legitimate function of the state.
This view of freedom is questionable though. Consider the view of liberty espoused by John Locke, one of, if not the, major philosophical influences of the American Revolution.
The Freedom then of Man and Liberty of acting according to his own Will, is grounded on his having Reason, which is able to instruct him in the Law he is to govern himself by, and make him Know how far he is left to the freedom of his own will (Locke, 1978, p. 3).
Freedom is based primarily upon man’s reason according to Locke. Because he possesses reason, man has the faculties and duty to rule himself. This Lockean concept of freedom was spread through early America in Cato’s Letters(Rothbard, 1978, p. 4). This concept of freedom was also that of John Stuart Mill, who wrote later on in the 19th century: “…the same reasons which show that opinions should be free, prove also that [an individual] should be allowed, without molestation, to carry his opinions into practice at his own cost” (Mill, 1956, p. 23).
Furthermore, while a cultivated citizenry might be more capable of exercising its influence in a republican government, there is something perverse in the state itself educating the citizenry on how to operate the state.
As Lieberman (1989, p. 11) notes:
Simply stated, public choice theory asserts that the behavior of politicians and bureaucrats can be explained by the same principals that govern behavior in private economic affairs. In the latter, persons generally act so as to enhance their self interest…. [Public officials] act either to get reelected or to enhance their pay, perquisites, and status. If the purpose of providing public schooling is to create an informed citizenry capable of choosing those individuals who run the nation, then surely the power to determine what is taught and how should not be rested in the hands of the governing individuals.
As Boaz (1991, p. 19) observes: “Even in basic academic subjects there is a danger in having only one approach taught in all of the schools.” The state-monopolistic nature of a public school system fosters undesirable conformity of curricula. Williams (1978) correctly describes a public educational system as one which, “requires a collective decision on many attributes of [education],” and that education is offered to all, “whether or not [a parent] agrees with all the attributes or not.” The individuals entrenched in positions of power in the state are those with control over what children are taught concerning history, government, economics, and so forth.
The result is a citizenry educated by operators of the state on how to choose the operators of the state!
Of course, those government agents who plan and direct the curricula are most likely well-intentioned people,but, as Ludwig von Mises (1952, p. 47) correctly notes: “No planner is ever shrewd enough to consider the possibility that the plan which the government will put into practice could differ from his own plan.” In other words, no matter how much such a person sincerely plans in the interests of others, ultimately the plans are still his own.
Furthermore, it should be realized that, for all the talk about the noble ideals of Thomas Jefferson, the foundation of America’s government by the people, and the preservation of citizens’ “freedom,” the realization of public primary education in the United States was ushered in with quite ignoble motives. “[O]ne of the major motivations of the legion of mid nineteenth-century American “educational reformers” who established the modern public school system was precisely to use it to cripple the cultural and linguistic life of the waves of immigrants into America, and to mould them, as educational reformer Samuel Lewis stated, into “one people” (Rothbard, 1978, p. 125). Particular targets of the American educational reformation were the Germans and the Irish. Monroe (1940, p. 224) articulates, with disarming benignity, the attitude towards these waves of immigrants and the cultures which they brought to America:
More than a million and a half Irish and a similar number of Germans were added to the population. Great numbers of English and Welsh had also come, but the two former nationalities were sufficiently concentrated in location to cause their different racial temperaments and social customs to become new factors in our political, social, and economic life…. [These] elements as a whole made the educational problem more distinct, and by accentuating the tests to which our political and social structure must be subjected directed the attention of the native population to the significance of education.
Notice how the English and Welsh, with cultures more compatible with predominant American beliefs, are mentioned only in passing, while the more exotic Irish and Germans are elements to which “our political and social structure must be subjected,” creating an “educational problem.”
Further, the individual liberties that America granted to its citizens and “led men to object to all form of governmental restraint caused such excesses that the success of self government was seriously questioned. Much of the responsibility for this condition approaching anarchy was popularly attributed to the untrained and unbridled foreign element…” (Monroe, 1940, pp. 223 — 224). Immigrant culture was seen as a cancer on the United States society, incompatible with American liberty. Paradoxically, the solution which would allow immigrants to enjoy liberty was to deny them freedom of education and instead force them to pay for publi
|“…but in order to justify state provision it must be shown that state provision indeed provides a more egalitarian and higher quality education to all.”
c schools whether or not they wanted to attend.
A study of problems with the existing school system by the Secretary of the Connecticut School Board in 1846 noted numerous defects: “The tenth defect was the existence of numerous private schools” (Monroe, 1940, p. 244). The existence of private schools was seen as especially troublesome with regards to the Irish Catholics. As Rothbard (1978, p. 125) writes: “It was the desire of the Anglo-Saxon majority to … smash the parochial school system of the Catholics.” Taxing indiscriminately for education, thus forcing those individuals who would opt for private education to pay twice (once in taxes, and again in tuition to the private school), was one method for discouraging private education. Even more blunt was the attempt in Oregon during 1920s to outlaw private schools (Rothbard, 1978, p. 126). A law was passed making private primary education illegal and compelling all children to attend public schools. Fortunately, in Pierce v. Society of Sisters (1925), the Supreme Court found the law to be unconstitutional.
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The original concepts behind public education, as espoused by Thomas Jefferson were indeed admirable. I happen to believe that public education is a very important part of what has made this nation great.
Indeed my girlfriend teaches Geography and mathmatics in public college.
That being said, it appears that someone along the way tossed out the baby with the bath water. Schools have become hotbeds for social commentary as a priority rather than a place to learn life skills and develop constructive criticism methodology.
Case in point; Scientific method used to have ten facets, now it has seven. They had to do that in order to justify the “soft sciences” such as sociology.
I also know of several families that have been dragged through hell because of things that schools reported to the police or Social Services and had their children children taken from them. Hugs turned into inappropriate touching, a swat on the bum viewed as what we used to call a “royal ass whipping.”
I think that the public school system is broken well beyond repair. Get rid of it.