School and State: Part I

While recovering from the second and final phase of periodontal cleaning (with a visit to a gum specialist in my near future), this week I’ll be digging into the ol’ blog archives from August 2002 and reprinting a series of posts on the legacy of public education. Following is the first installment of a three-part series; it was originally posted here.

Should a government, barred from controlling the flow of information through the press to the public at large, be granted the authority to control the flow of information through the schools to the nation’s children? Ponder these considerations:

  • No single entity, not even a school board or legislative committee, can possibly know every variety of education that is demanded. Capitalism succeeds because an individual business needs to be familiar only with its market niche, and because the quest to find unmet niches means that eventually the entire spectrum of demand will be filled.
  • No author of instructional material and no school policy maker is 100% correct about all the facts of any given subject. Under competition, different schools will be wrong about different facts; in a monopoly, all schools will be wrong about the same facts.
  • Revenues are coerced through taxation, attendance is coerced through compulsory education laws, and few citizens have the means to seek private-sector schooling alternatives; therefore, economic pressures to improve efficiency and to provide the customer greater product variety is virtually nonexistent. Private firms must sell what the customers want and be able to make a profit or else they die.
  • Government education naturally attracts those who wish to use the power of the state to control which ideas students are exposed to and which ones they are shielded from.

The answer to the first question is that education must some day be completely privatized. This is not a simple task; many steps need to be taken, and I don’t pretend to know them all. I will comment on one popular fixes that the Alliance for the Separation of School and State argues against vehemently, in addition to tax credits and charter schools: vouchers (a list of related articles from various sources can be found here). The point of privatization is to get the government out of education completely; addicting private educators to public funds only extends the government’s reach into scholastic information control. Anyone who doubts that government will attach irrational requirements to schools accepting vouchers should take a look at the food stamp program. You can buy all the chips, ice cream, soft drinks, and candy you want with them, but you cannot buy Gatorade; food stamps are designed for the purchase of agricultural food products only, whether they are nutritious or not. If the USDA is not immune to implementing such boneheaded policy, neither is the Department of Education.
Adapting to the existence of public schools means one thing: minimizing the harm that they can do. This is accomplished in part through political lobbying for just education laws. The Feds must be stripped of jurisdiction over schools per the Tenth Amendment. For the sake of decentralizing control over information content, state regulation should be limited to schools’ administrative issues. Compulsory education laws must be abolished; don’t’ worry, the only people who will take advantage of this will be those who want to be able to provide alternate education choices without harassment from government officials who can’t tell the difference between homeschooling and truancy. Mandatory standardized testing must be abolished; besides having dubious merit, this impinges on school boards’ and individual teachers’ flexibility in drafting curricula. Parents must have the right to immediate access to curriculum guidelines, and must be free to pull their children out of entire courses, reading assignments, or special projects as they wish. Public school officials must recognize that students’ First Amendment rights to speech, religious expression, and peaceable assembly do not end when they enter government property; any who interfere with those rights must be fired and prosecuted. Public teachers and administrators must not be allowed to use their official duties as a vehicle for proselytizing for any ideology, religious, political, or otherwise; this does not preclude their on-campus-but-off-duty First Amendment rights and does not prevent them from preaching the basic elements of civic morality (don’t lie, cheat, steal, assault, or usurp authority) or teaching objectively about various philosophies.
Keeping public schools in check also demands that the private sector provides alternate sources of education. Homeschooling, private schools, and privately-led school clubs are only part of that equation. Children spend a lot of time at school but not all of it. They take part in a vast marketplace of ideas – movies, television, radio, Internet, books, church, the crowd at the local burger hangout, and so on. Those who wish to compete with the educrats should consider all media, not just its most glamorous forms.