Education in a Free Society
by Dr. Edward Younkins
Professor of Accountancy and Business Administration at Wheeling Jesuit University in West Virginia and author of Capitalism and Commerce.
Proposed solutions have included greater funding, a longer academic year, national standards, measures to reduce school violence, and educational vouchers. The only proper solution is to completely separate state and school thereby permitting education to be purchased and sold through the free market system. Consumer-financed education must replace tax-based funding of education. We need to dissolve public schools and replace them with educational businesses. By de-monopolizing public schools, we would raise standards, better motivate teachers and students, allow greater innovation, bring costs down, and meet the particularized needs of our children.
Public education is inconsistent with freedom and responsibility. Public education erodes personal freedom and thus should be replaced with parental choice, competition, and market solutions. Parents are responsible for the education of their children. Under a free market, families would decide which are the best educational vehicles for each of their children.
State schools are based on the assumptions that the government is sovereign in education that people are morally and legally obligated to fund the public school system, and that state schools can, and should, teach neutral values. Government policy imposes strict rules and regulations and a directive to use education to engineer political and social outcomes. Public education is a collectivist welfare program in which people are coerced to participate. Not only is political consensus substituted for private individual decisions, the benefits of public education are not commensurate with its costs and its subsidized prices distort individual decision-making.
In the past, families, religious groups, and private schools dominated education, but today the state is in charge. We need to eliminate state involvement in education.
A person should be free to pay for a child's education if he wanted to. Today, people are forced to pay for schools imparting ideas that they would not voluntarily support. Freed of their educational tax burden, individuals would have the funds to pay for private education. In addition, competition would raise school quality and would make private education more affordable and available.
Totally separating education from the state means abolishing school taxes and compulsory school attendance. By divorcing education from political power, parents and their children will be free to pursue education the best serves their needs.
History and Philosophy of Public Education
Rousseau, like Plato before him and Mann and Dewey after him, believed in the perfectibility of man provided that he was educated so that he could not want to do evil. According to Rousseau, there exists a "general will" over and above wills of individuals. He taught that there is an intellectual elite who is able to discern the commands of the general will and, because of that knowledge, have the authority to implement those commands. The existence and authority of the general will is the cornerstone of Rousseau's philosophy of education.
In Emile, Rousseau portrays the ideal education in the story of a child, who, free from the restrictions of an adult's will, is able to study nature and thus learn what he needs to know. However, Emile has an enlightened tutor, whose purpose is to secretly manufacture the conditions under which nature will teach the student what the tutor wants the student to learn. Through the tutor's disguised intentions, the student, by equating his own will with the will of his tutor, is conditioned to identity his own will with the general will.
German thinkers from Luther to Fichte to the Prussian monarchs developed theories of compulsory state education. Hegel viewed the state, through which the general will found expression, as the supreme earthly manifestation of the Absolute and as the embodiment of ethics. People found freedom when they recognized the state's exalted status and accepted the state's objectives as their own objectives. This view ultimately gave rise to American nationalism and the movement toward universal education.
For the first two hundred years in America, from the early 1600s to the early 1800s, public schools were virtually non-existent. Before the 1830s, education was primarily an informal local activity. Private education in early America included the home, church, Catholic and Protestant schools, charity schools for the poor, apprenticeships, private study, and circulating libraries. With the variety of educational systems available to our forefathers, tax-financed schools did not receive much support. For many years, the only strong advocates of state schools in the U.S. were Boston Unitarians who denied Christian teachings and accepted Rousseau's ideas that negative behavior was the result of mis-education rather than due to man's fallen nature.
Although tax-financed common schools existed by the 18305, most parents continued to send their children to private schools. However, the public school agenda of the Unitarians and other elites began to advance with urgency as Catholic immigration, especially from Ireland and Germany, soared in the 18405 and 18505. Protestants began to fear that Catholic immigrants and the poor would become an unassimilated mass.
Horace Mann, a Unitarian lawyer and legislator, had been appointed secretary of the newly created Massachusetts Board of Education in 1837, the first state board of education in the U.S. During his12 years as its head, Mann created a unified system of common schools including teacher-training initiatives and dedication to a Utopian vision of perfecting the moral character of the nation's youths. Mann was a die-hard Unitarian moralist who perceived the public school as the cure for social ills and exhibited faith in human goodness given the right education and environment. Mann, an admirer of the Prussian approach to public education, said that closing down prisons would be possible, given a generation of schools according to his prescriptions.
Mann's goal was to establish mechanisms of social control. He advocated a standard curriculum, centralization of public funds, a strongly moral character of instruction, and state leadership in training teachers dedicated to the common school agenda. Mann and his fellow reformers sought to use the state's authority and resources to impose a single ethos on every school in the name of enlightenment and social unity.
Originally, many Protestants criticized the peculiar religious character of the common public school. Mann's religion without salvation was attractive to an elite who was confident of its own success and of the country's inevitable progress. Protestant critics feared that the schools' espoused non-denominational neutrality was the same as the institution of secularism through the public schools.
However, the large influx of Catholic immigrants who tended to establish their own schools, was thought by many to be a threat to Protestantism. Encouraged by the Unitarians, many Protestants began to embrace the state school concept. Since the establishment of Protestantism as the American national church was impossible due to the nation's emphasis on religious tolerance, it was thought the public school could perhaps become an acceptable substitute mechanism to control religion. The public school was thus seen by Protestants as a potential mechanism for instilling the true faith.
Mann's non-denominational approach did incorporate Bible reading (the King James version), daily prayer, and hymns into its activities. Of course, as America became more secularized so did the public schools. Public education in America really began to boom after the Civil War, as government- controlled and funded schools replaced the earlier private education system. The biggest boost for state schools came when states began to enact laws of compulsory attendance.
Catholics felt left out of the public school system. As a consequence, the Catholic parochial school system was established in 1874. Catholics, like the Protestants, Unitarians, and others realized that whoever controls the schools controls the upcoming generation.
By altering and connecting Rousseau's ideas of an independently existing general will with the principle of majority rule, 19th century American intellectuals thought that the "will of the majority" as interpreted by themselves, provided a unique source of beneficence and wisdom. Education controlled by that "will" would foster the public good.
John Dewey's progressive model of active learning or pragmatism promoted a revolt against abstract learning and attempted to make education an effective tool for integrating culture and vocation. Dewey was responsible for developing a philosophical approach to education called "experimentalism" which saw education as the basis for democracy. His goal was to turn public schools into indoctrination centers to develop a socialized population that could adapt to an egalitarian state operated by an intellectual elite.
Thinking for Dewey was a collective phenomenon. Disavowing the role of the individual mind in achieving technological and social progress, Dewey promoted the group, rather than the teacher, as the main source of social control in the schools. Denying the ideas of universal principles, natural law, and natural rights, Dewey emphasized social values and taught that life adjustment is more important than academic skills.
Dewey explained that the subject matter and moral lessons in the traditional curricula were meant to teach and inspire but were irrelevant to the students' immediate action experiences. The contradiction between the students' real interests and those of the traditional school alienated students from their schoolwork. School-age children were caught between the opposing forces of immature, undeveloped beings and the values, meanings, and aims of subject matter constructed by a mature adult. Dewey believed that students' energy, talent, and potential could not be realized within the structure of an archaic school system.
Dewey and other members of the Progressive movement wanted a predictable method for providing a common culture and of instilling Americans with democratic values. As a result, by the end of the 19th century, a centrally-controlled, monopolistic, comprehensive, and bureaucratic public education system was deemed to be essential for America's future.
During the 20th century, the job of public education was expanded to inculcating moral values, providing nutrition and health, protecting children from psychological and physical abuse, and combating crime and delinquency. Later, additional social and political goals such as racial integration, democratic participation, environmental awareness and activism, and social tolerance were added.
The Nature of Public Education
Public schools are coercive political monopolies that are funded through compulsory taxation and that have a captive audience of pupils through mandatory attendance laws. People must pay for the school system even if they do not use public schools or are not satisfied with them. The state uses its coercive taxing power to take money from some, even individuals who do not have children, to fund the education of others. Since most people cannot afford to pay private tuition after bearing their school tax burden the market for private schools is artificially restrained. There would be many more, and a larger variety, of private schools in the absence of a tax-supported system. In fact, the bankruptcy of some private schools can be attributed to unfair competition from the public system.
Decisions are made from the top-down. Small groups of elected or appointed state officials ignore market forces and make decisions regarding teaching methods, curricula, textbooks, class size, teacher qualifications, etc. Public education is designed to serve the state and its ruling elite who endeavor to create a one size fits all education for a population of diverse children.
Public education views children as property of the state, undermines parents' moral authority and responsibility, and stifles the entrepreneurial spirit. A system of force and compulsion replaces education with indoctrination. Students learn officially approved state doctrine from state-approved teachers using state-approved texts. Public schools promote agendas that conflict with parents' rights to shape the values and beliefs of their children.
Opponents of free market education believe that only public education can impart the skills, values, knowledge, and attitudes needed for good citizenship. Political correctness and outcome-based education result from public educators' attempts to socialize the young to make society in their own egalitarian image through the use of compulsory state education. Public education thus tends to be more formative and indoctrinating than it is informative.
Parents have been denied the right to choose the type of education they want for their children. Children do not learn in the same way, at the same rate, by the same methods, or under the same conditions. Parents are in the best position to take into account the relevant differences in their individual children and should be permitted to select the appropriate education for each of them. Not all parents want their children educated in the same way. The superior performance of home-schooled children testifies to the ability of parents compared to that of state-certified teachers.
Public educators want uniformity in the schools since in their minds there would be social inequality if everyone did not have the same education. However, specialized schools which vary in their methods, goals, materials, and assessment methods would better cater to the diversity of human beings.
Public schools do impart values, but they are the values of conformity and docility. Public schooling suppresses the individuality, initiative, and creativity of students. In its efforts to stay ideologically independent, public education is likely to sacrifice intellectual and character development. The idea has caught on that every individual has a right and a duty to be educated and that society through the government has the obligation to fund the education of its citizens. Supporters of public schooling have maintained that many children will go uneducated if education were not compulsory and if the state did not deliver it. The state assumes that parents are irresponsible and must be forced to do what they should do. Parents are not free to ignore school attendance by their children and are not free to ignore tuition payments through taxation. By avowing the legitimacy of public education, voters try to transfer their responsibility for educating their children to the state. However, parental moral responsibility for their child's education cannot be shifted to anyone else.
Public schools get their customers through compulsory attendance laws. Public education is based on the prison concept. Tax-funded schools have coercion as part of their culture. As wards of the state, children are jailed with a mandatory sentence until they are 16. The state removes children from parents assumed to be incompetent in order to keep them from being anti-social and to make them into complacent workers and citizens.
When schooling is mandated by law, the sense of opportunity that accompanies free choice is missing. If education is not compulsory, then students are perceiving education as an opportunity rather than as a requirement. In the absence of compulsory education, students would no longer be captive to ideological and political brainwashing on the part of teachers and administrators.
Most Americans accept the propriety of forcibly taking some people's money in order to educate other people's children. Students are thus taught by example that they are entitled to government "gifts" and that it is proper to obtain an end through organized force. State education teaches that there are a multitude of good ends that can be attained by the state taking wealth to pay for them in the same manner as it pays for students' educations. If children are led to believe that they are owed benefits from the government without any work or its product being exchanged, they tend to think that it is not necessary for them to perform work to obtain any of their desired possessions.
Compulsion negatively affects attitudes and poor attitudes obstruct education. Compulsory education has drawn some children into classes who do not want to be there thereby lowering the quality of education as standards are reduced to meet the lowest common denominator. Some students just don't belong in school, but the government not only forces their attendance, it also compels those who do belong and want to be there to associate with delinquents and the uneducable. Of course, due to self interest, only a few would go uneducated if education were noncompulsory. Attendees would have a financial incentive to get the most out of their education.
When the state provides a "free education" the value of the education is decreased in the minds of parents as well as in the minds of students. Parents will not be as interested in ensuring their children's attendance when schools are free. In addition, parents will not demand much from their children or the schools when education does not cost them anything. Quality declines when the connection between service and payments is severed. Public education breaks the link between consumers' demands for education and their ability to control their own resources in voicing that demand.
Public education continues because it is funded through compulsory tax payments. Because public schools are guaranteed revenue, there is no incentive to strive for excellence. When a school has monopoly control over students, the motivation to produce successful students is lacking. Public education deprives parents of their right to select the kind of schooling that is best for their children. The state taxes away parents' income and permits public bureaucrats to run the school system as they see fit.
Public schools are insulated from failure and protected from competition. Consequently, it is safe for them to ignore their customers. Public educators have little incentive to provide quality, to respect and please their customers, to pursue innovations, to produce results, to be efficient, or to control their costs.
Politicians push for higher taxes to foster their political images by exhibiting their concern for improving public schools. In addition, school administrators do not try to be efficient or cut cost because such behavior would lead to a reduced budget. This helps to explain why the U.S. spends more per student per year than any other major nation. At the same time, student performance has not kept par with the increase in resources devoted to public schooling.
Public school systems lack the entrepreneurial ingredient. The educational bureaucracy is unable to calculate net income or net loss, has no way of using cost-benefit analysis to see if expenditures were appropriately applied, and do not know if they are using taxpayers' money to accurately respond to consumer demand.
Public education uses taxation to evade market prices. There is an immense difference between government paying for education and the parent paying for it in a free market situation. When public education is financed by the state, the real price to taxpayers is much greater than the price perceived by the consumers. The family of a student only pays part of the cost of a state-financed education with the rest of the cost being transferred to taxpayers with no or fewer children than the particular family has.
Vouchers and Other Pseudo-Reforms
Proponents of educational choice have proposed educational vouchers, charter schools, and tax deductions for private educational expenditures. The fundamental problem, public funding of education, remains under each of these alternatives. There are always strings attached when state funds are provided. Government intrusion always follows government funding.
With respect to educational vouchers, publicly-funded vouchers would be issued to parents of school-age children to spend at the government-approved school of their choice. Parents would be given a voucher worth a precise amount of public tax money. The parent would have the state-granted right to choose from among the local schools that meet the state's standards. Vouchers are based on the assumption that the state, rather than the parents, is sovereign over education. Parents' choices will be restricted by controlling school eligibility for reimbursement through vouchers. The state, the source of educational funding, retains its sanctioning authority under the voucher system.
Every private school that accepts a voucher payment is subject to local, state, and/or federal rules and regulations. Private enterprises cease to be private with the introduction of public funds. Since state funds support private schools in a voucher system, if follows that private schools will be accountable to the government if they are to succeed. For example, public educational officials could require open admissions, insist that a private school's student population reflect the community it serves including proper quotas of minority students, require that vouchers must be accepted as full payment even if they are of less value than the school's tuition, demand that voucher money not be used to finance religious education, etc. A voucher system could also be used to exclude schools that teach "politically incorrect" ideas or that employ teaching methods contrary to the prevailing orthodox methods championed by public education bureaucrats.
As long as an education is publicly funded, decisions regarding educational policy will be politically made. Under the voucher system, voucher-supported private schools become part of the state's monopoly on education. The voucher system creates an illusion of parental authority without the substance of such authority. A voucher program violates the principle that parents are morally and financially responsible for their children's education. In a voucher system, coercive taxation remains the source of education funding. A cosmetic change at best, a voucher program gives the appearance that parents are exercising choice, while, at the same time, transferring the evils of the public system to private schools.
Vouchers will lure students back into publicly-financed education. Currently, many parents remove their children from public education as a matter of principle. The voucher system will entice parents since its benefits will only be received if parents enroll their children in state-approved schools. Vouchers will lessen the demand for private education that is outside the taxpayer financed; education system. Parents who want to keep their children out of government-run schools will have to say no to free education in a state school, turn down vouchers for government licensed schools, and then pay additional funds to send their children to an authentically independent school! In essence, these parents will be paying for education three times while their children only receive one education each.
A charter school is a partially autonomous publicly-financed school that is operated by a group of community members, teachers, and/or parents. It operates under a charter with a local school district board of education or sometimes with an outside agency such as an institution of higher learning. Charter schools are free to a certain degree, but, like the voucher system, charters will corrupt such schools. Restrictions confronting charter schools include the source of its funding, regulations stemming from government control, and such schools' lack of market feedback and accountability.
Some advocate private educational expense deductions for federal income tax purposes. Pre-tax dollars would be used to finance children's education under this approval. Less beneficial than a tax credit, such a deduction would only ameliorate one's tax penalty. In addition the main problem will still be that the educational "benefit" originates in the political order and must be utilized within the political framework.
The Educational Freedom
The best school choice plan is the free market. Education should be bought and sold through free market processes. The separation of state and education would restore intellectual freedom, academic integrity, and individual achievement. The private market can best provide high quality and efficient education services. Private educational institutions can supply a superior educational product but currently, because of subsidized tuition at public schools, most students select the lower-priced option. When a child attends a private school, the family must pay taxes to subsidize the cost of students in public education and pay the whole cost of education at a private school.
Education is an economic commodity to be purchased in the marketplace according to the preferences and valuations of education consumers. In a free education market parents and students would decide based on the perceived costs and benefits of each option. In essence, the procurement of an educational service does not differ from the acquisition of any other private good.
Outcomes in a consumer-funded education market would be the result of voluntary purchases by educational consumers. The best schools would earn the most income. Profit calculations would permit schools to gauge their performance according to customer evaluations. Parents would choose schools based on performance and reputation. Paying customers value and select competent schools and teachers. Thus, it follows that the consumers of education should be the payers.
Market-based schools have incentives to furnish quality education at a competitive price. Competition would drive poor schools from the market. Market mechanisms would provide the most efficient allocation of resources. Schools would compete for the best students and students would compete for the best teachers and schools. Teachers' salaries would be determined by market competition. Schools would provide instruction at a variety of locations with varying philosophies, specialization areas, and costs. Schools would arise to meet the demands of various students' abilities and needs. Where the demand for a specific type of education arises, an entrepreneur would form the desired institution of learning. With the diversity that exists among individuals, a variety of schools would appear to meet individual educational needs.
It is critical that parents purchase education directly, when, and only for as long as, they believe their children require it. Only the total separation of state and school can re-institute parental responsibility, protect parents' rights, and allow students, schools, and teachers to flourish in a free educational environment. Parents have moral authority over, and responsibility for, their own children.
If school taxes are abolished, parents will benefit by keeping their own money. The money belongs to the parents, not the government. They would then be free to choose their own children's schools. For example, if parents want their children to have prayer, then they would send them to a school that has prayers. If they don't want their children to have prayer, then they would send them to a school that has no prayer. Parents should be free to send their children to religious schools, progressive schools, trade schools, home school, or even no school at all. Of course, it is likely that the pursuit of happiness will supply enough incentive for people to want their children to improve educationally. Schools privately funded and freely selected would be mediating associations like churches, corporations, and unions, and would foster a true sense of belonging and identity.
In private schools in a free market, failure to provide the promised results would lead to declining enrollments, and financial losses. Competition breeds quality. For example, the free market would encourage teachers to improve their skills and would attract others into the teaching profession. Good teachers would be rewarded and poor teachers would be forced to select other careers. The market would also indicate which teaching approaches worked best in given situations and would stimulate creative individuals to produce and market learning materials. True educational businesses would evaluate teachers and their instructional operations to determine whether or not the customers are satisfied and getting their money's worth of education.
Educational competition would result in the lowering of costs. Competition would make private education more affordable and widely available. This means that poor families would be more able to afford the cost of financing their children's educations. In addition, if the poor are excused from the numerous education taxes that currently exist, then they would have the funds to pay for private education. It is also likely that private scholarships and charitable assistance will be available for lower income families, especially when the person or organization funding the scholarship knows that he is paying for a superior educational product.
In a free market, consumer demand and choice would determine which schools survive and prosper. A private, non-compulsory educational system would be better able to provide for diverse student needs, backgrounds, interests, goals, and preferences. A system of voluntary, unsubsidized education means rescinding government compelled financing, attendance, credentialing, accreditation, and curriculum. It means the full separation of school and state.