American education is in shambles. One in three fourth graders scores below the “basic level”—the lowest ranking deemed proficient—on the reading portion of the National Assessment of Education (NAEP) exams. Among low-income students, half score below that level. In some of America’s larger cities, fewer than half the students earn a high school diploma; in Detroit, only one quarter do.1 Roughly one million children drop out of school each year. Forty-five million Americans are marginally illiterate. Twenty-one million cannot read at all.2
Such statistics indicate not merely the current state of American education, but a decades-long trend in educational deterioration. Since 1983, 10 million Americans have reached twelfth grade without learning to read at the basic level. In 1986, the national test score average for eleventh graders taking the NAEP literature and history test was 54.5 percent correct on the history portion, and 51.8 percent correct on the literature portion.3 In 1995, a nationally administered history test found that only one student in ten was grade-level proficient in the subject; the majority failed to reach a basic level.4 In 1996, U.S. high school seniors scored near the bottom on an internationally administered math exam.5 According to a study published in 1999, a “nationwide assessment of math skills found that ‘only 14 percent of eighth graders scored at the seventh-grade level or above’”6 and “fewer than half of twelfth-graders can do seventh-grade work in mathematics.”7 In 2000, math students in America ranked below those in Malaysia, Bulgaria, and Latvia.8
Why is education in America—the world’s wealthiest, most-advanced nation—so abysmally bad? A central reason is the existence of America’s government-run schools.
The many problems with government schools include the way they are funded, their lack of competition and economic incentive, the fact that children are forced to attend them, the schools’ resultant unaccountability regardless of performance, and various other conflicts inherent in a school system based on force. Consider these in turn.
Local, state, and federal governments finance the government schools by seizing wealth from productive men, largely via property taxes, but also by means of sales and income taxes, both personal and corporate.9 Thus the schools are funded not voluntarily, based on merit, but coercively, regardless of merit.
Indeed, on the premise that poor academic performance can be remediated primarily by increased spending, the schools receive progressively more money, not less, as they educationally regress. New York City in 2003, for example, in an attempt to improve the dismal academic performance of its government schools, increased spending by $7 billion, only to be dismayed by results of the 2007 NAEP exams, showing meager improvement in some areas and deterioration in others.10
The gradual worsening of the government schools imposes gradually heavier financial liabilities on the taxpayers who are forced to support them. The government says, in effect, “The schools are underperforming because we do not violate individual rights sufficiently; we must do so on an even wider scale.”
For many families, the taxes they pay to support the government schools make it impossible for them to send their children to a private school, for they are financially unable to pay twice for education. Making matters worse, truancy laws mandate that children attend school until age sixteen. This combination of coercive policies means that many students are forced to attend government schools.
The current arrangement makes the government school system akin to a monopoly, in that it is impervious to competition.
By analogy, suppose the government established a state-run automobile company; legally required all adults to own a car, which they received “free” of charge; and, by means of property, sales, and income taxes, financed the government-car producer, thus making it monetarily impossible for millions of Americans to purchase a privately-manufactured automobile. Such a “business” would gain its income and “customers” by means of a rights-violating system, and it would receive the same income and “customers” regardless of whether its “customers” deemed its product satisfactory. The government-car producer would lack any and all economic incentive to excel; no matter how woeful its product, it would be kept in “business” by wealth taken coercively from taxpayers. This is what the government school system does in the realm of education.
Further, government schools create irresolvable conflicts regarding curricula, textbooks, and teacher training. In order for the government to ensure that its schools are providing government-quality education, the state must establish an agency—call it the Bureau of Education—to oversee the schools, curriculums, textbooks, and teacher training. Who controls the Bureau? In a dictatorship, the government controls it and employs the state schools to ram propaganda down the throats of its subjects. In a mixed economy, such as America’s, competing interest groups vie to gain control of the Bureau, seeking to impose their preferred educational standards on the nation’s youth.
Consider just a few of the conflicts arising from the current American system. Some groups want schools to teach creationism; others want them to teach evolution. Some want schools to teach the “virtues” of socialism and the “crimes” of America; others want them to teach the virtues of freedom and the unprecedented accomplishments of America. Some want schools to teach that America is a Christian country; others want them to teach that America is a secular republic. Some want schools to teach the “look-say” or “whole language” method of reading; others want schools to employ phonics.
Such conflicts follow logically from the coercive methods by which government schools are funded, populated, and operated.
By contrast, private schools entail none of these problems.
It is common knowledge that private schools are generally academically superior to government schools, and this superiority is borne out on various tests. For instance, in the area of reading, private-school fourth graders in 1994 scored nineteen points higher than their government school counterparts on the NAEP exam.11 Likewise, in the field of math, also during the 1990s, the disparity between private school and government school achievement, on average, over the course of high school, was equivalent to 3.2 years of learning.12 More recently, in 2008, educational researcher Andrew Coulson reported on a comprehensive study—analyzing twenty-five years of educational research from eighteen nations—that compared government schools to private schools. The analysis demonstrated not merely the academic superiority of private education, but, more revealingly, that “the private sector’s margin of superiority is greatest when looking at the least regulated, most market-like private schools.”13
One school that demonstrated both the superiority of the private model and the problems for private schools posed by government schools was Westside Preparatory School in Chicago, founded in 1975 by Marva Collins. Collins was a schoolteacher in Chicago who, frustrated by the bureaucratic restrictions of the government schools, resigned and opened Westside Prep. She took in many low-income and minority children deemed incorrigibly uneducable by the same government schools she had fled and transformed them into consummate students. She jettisoned the look-say and whole-language methods of teaching reading used in the government schools, taught phonics instead, and made reading a vital part of every aspect of her curriculum, including mathematics. She did not organize classes based exclusively on age, but let students progress as rapidly as they were able, and used advanced students to assist in the teaching of novices. Both she and her school became justly famous for the academic excellence achieved by their students.14 Unfortunately, due to insufficient enrollment and funding, Westside Prep closed in 2008—while government schools in Chicago continued to receive both students and funding by means of coercion.
Countless comparisons of private schools to government schools reveal that the former generally outperform the latter. The question is: Why?
The main reason for private school superiority is that such schools are immune to the problems that inescapably plague government schools.
A private school cannot force customers to purchase its product, nor can it compel anyone to finance its existence, nor can it regulate or curtail the activities of its competitors. Because private schools are legally forbidden to use force, their existence and programs entail no violation of rights. Having to earn their customers and money, private schools possess strong economic incentive to provide excellent educational services. If they want to stay in business and flourish, they must make money by satisfying the educational requirements of students and their families; if they fail to do so, they face bankruptcy. (Even nonprofit private schools must compete for students and funding. If they fail to deliver a satisfactory educational product, families send their children to a competitor that does. And if they fail to succeed in their stated mission, their philanthropic financiers will find other venues for their philanthropy.)
Further, private schools pose no irresolvable problems of curriculum, textbooks, or teaching methods. The owners of private schools decide what subjects will be taught, the methods by which they will be taught, and the price at which they will offer their services. Parents voluntarily purchase the service for their children (or not) and continue to purchase it only if satisfied with the service and its price.
If a private school chooses to teach the theory of evolution in its biology curriculum, it is free to do so, and potential customers are free to decide whether they want that for their children. If another private school chooses to teach creationism, it is free to do so, and potential customers are free to decide whether they want that for their children. If a private school chooses to focus on the three Rs to the exclusion of painting, music, or drama, it is free to do so, and potential customers are free to patronize the school or not. If another private school chooses to focus on the arts, or to focus on trade skills, or to offer any variety of subjects, it is free to do so, and potential customers are free to do business there or not.
The philosophy of education is a complex and controversial issue, and people’s needs and values can differ in countless ways. In a system of private schools, everyone is free to decide what he will do with his money and where he will educate his child; no one is forced to finance schools he deems unworthy or to patronize ideas he deems false or immoral.
In short, private schools do not violate rights; thus, they are free of the myriad problems that accompany rights violations. In other words, private schools are not only moral but also—and consequently—practical.
History demonstrates this as fully as do current educational practices.
Prior to the mid-19th century, government schools did not exist in America. All schools were private, and education was widespread and outstanding. For example, in the Middle Atlantic colonies during the pre-Revolutionary period, professional educators established numerous schools to satisfy the demand for education.15 Philadelphia, for instance, boasted schools for every subject and interest. Between 1740 and 1776, 125 private schoolmasters advertised their services in Philadelphia newspapers—this in a city whose population was miniscule relative to today. Professional educators provided mentoring services in English, contemporary foreign languages, science, and a wide variety of other topics.16 Children who grew to be such brilliant scientists, writers, and statesmen as Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, and George Washington received their education at home or in private schools.
(As to higher education, by the late-18th century six private colleges operated in the colonies: Yale, the College of New Jersey [Princeton], the College of Philadelphia [Penn], Dartmouth, Queen’s [Rutgers], and Rhode Island College [Brown].)17
Predictably, the educational results of such a free educational market were superb. The literacy levels of Revolutionary America were remarkably high. For example, Thomas Paine’s book, Common Sense,written in plain style but enunciating sophisticated political principles, sold 120,000 copies during the colonial period to a free population of 2.4 million (akin to selling 10 million copies today).18 The essays of The Federalist, written by Hamilton, Madison, and Jay in support of a Constitution for the nascent republic, were largely newspaper editorials written for and read by the common man.
Sales of American books and educational materials in the early- and mid-19th century likewise indicate a high national literacy rate. Between 1818 and 1823, while the U.S. population was under 20 million, Walter Scott’s novels sold 5 million copies (the equivalent of selling 60 million copies today). Early in the 19th century, The Last of the Mohicans by James Fenimore Cooper likewise sold millions of copies.19 The McGuffey’s Readers, first published in 1836, routinely used such terms as “heath” and “benighted” in third-grade texts. They asked such questions as “What is this species of composition called?” and gave such assignments as “Relate the facts of this dialogue.” The fourth-grade reader included selections from Hawthorne, and the fifth-grade text, readings from Shakespeare. “These were not the textbooks of the elite but of the masses,” explains Thomas Sowell. “[F]rom 1836 to 1920, McGuffey’s Readers were so widely used that they sold more than 122 million copies.”20
Given the high quality of education in early America, it is no surprise that two renowned French visitors observed and reported on the phenomenon. In an 1800 book Vice President Thomas Jefferson commissioned, titled National Education in the United States of America, Pierre Du Pont de Nemours reported that Americans received an education far superior to that of other peoples. “Most young Americans,” he wrote, “can read, write, and cipher. Not more than four in a thousand are unable to write legibly.”21 Several decades later, Alexis de Tocqueville wrote in Democracy in America that Americans were the most educated people of history.22
Private schools in America have provided and continue to provide high-quality education.
Unfortunately, private schools today constitute less than 11 percent of America’s educational system. According to the National Center for Educational Statistics, in school year 2009–2010, nearly 49.8 million students attended government schools, while 5.8 million were enrolled in private schools.23 Because of the numerous coercive laws earlier discussed, almost 90 percent of American children are compelled to attend educationally crippling government schools. This is not merely a tragedy. It is a man-made tragedy; indeed, an atrocity.
What is the solution?
One key political solution to the abysmal state of education in America is to privatize the government schools. For an indication of what would happen to education in America if the government schools were privatized, consider the industries that are either fully or essentially private. Examine the quality, availability, and prices of automobiles, cell phones, CDs, MP3 players, jeans, breakfast cereals, and pain relievers. Consider the quality, availability, and prices of services such as hair styling, car repair, plumbing, and dentistry. If we focus on any one of these, we can see that the private nature of the businesses involved is what drives quality up, prices down, and makes such a diverse array of goods and services available to millions.
For instance, when was the last time anyone complained about a shortage of high-quality, low-priced cell phones? Observe that there are countless varieties of cell phones, optional features, and calling plans. Cellular service producers competing for business provide customers with sparkling new, high-tech phones free of charge upon contracting to purchase their service. Just over a century ago, people had no telephone service. Now they receive a personal, portable phone—a technological marvel—for free. Why are cell phones and calling plans so inexpensive, technologically advanced, and abundant? The answer is that the industry is relatively free of government interference. Producers of goods and services in a free market know that if they provide quality products for reasonable prices they will make money and that if they do not they will go out of business.
The economic bottom line is that if a producible good or service is in demand in a free market, profit-seeking businessmen will endeavor to supply it at affordable prices. Education is no exception.
In a fully privatized, free market of education, profit-seeking businessmen would provide quality educational services at prices affordable to millions. And because they would have to meet consumer demand in order to thrive, businessmen would provide a sweeping diversity of services matching actual student needs. For example, observing that many people value the full academic curriculum and want their children to learn the classic three Rs of reading, writing, and arithmetic, entrepreneurial educators would provide such a service effectively and affordably. Likewise, observing that many of these same people want their children later to advance to science, mathematics, literature, and history, educators would provide these services as well, because they could make money doing so.
The same is true of vocational training. Some families demand only the basics of academics, and then want their children to branch out into one of many vocational fields—whether business, farming, baking, construction work, or countless other productive fields. In a free market, profit-seeking educators would supply such services as efficiently and inexpensively as possible—lest competitors provide a better value and put them out of business.
This truth applies also to the field of special education. Some individuals need specialized instruction. For example, some are gifted in specific ways—intellectually, musically, athletically—and require highly focused, advanced training. Others suffer from debilitating psychological or physiological ailments. Some are sadly afflicted with varying degrees of mental retardation. In a free market, where there is a demand for various forms of special education, profit-seeking businessmen will compete to supply them.
All the evidence culled from the current state of education, from history, and from the logic of economics points without exception to a single conclusion: Private schools competing for students and profits in free (or freer) markets produce quality, affordable educational services to satisfy customer demand.
Politically speaking, the practical solution to America’s education problems is to privatize the government school system—to convert the government schools into private schools. And the reason this is the practical solution is that it is the moral solution. A fully private school system would recognize and respect the rights of everyone involved. It would leave educators and customers fully free to produce and purchase educational products and services in accordance with their own needs and preferences.
Before we turn to how the government school system could be privatized, let us address a couple of common objections to the goal of privatization.
One objection is that some parents do not value their children’s education enough to pay for it. To the extent that there are such parents, this is hardly a reason to violate the rights of all Americans and destroy the possibility of a good education for millions of other children. People who have children and do not care enough to educate them should be socially ostracized and, when appropriate, prosecuted for parental neglect. But they should not be held up as a reason to violate Americans’ rights and keep American education in the sewer.
The fact is that the overwhelming preponderance of parents value their children’s education enormously and, when free to choose how they would spend their money, would procure that value just as they do food, clothing, shelter, and medical care. Observe in this regard the current trend toward home schooling in America. An increasing number of parents, now more than a million, value their children’s education so much and are so dissatisfied with government schools that they have chosen to home school their children—despite the fact that they are still forced to finance the government schools they do not use. (Not surprisingly, the educational results achieved by home schoolers are generally outstanding. For example, by eighth grade most home-schooled children test four grade levels above the national average.)24
If parents choose not to provide their children with a proper education, that is their right—and the children will, for a time, suffer the consequences of their parents’ irrationality. But children are not mindless replicates of their parents; as they grow into adulthood they can and often do make fundamentally different choices. For example, the children of religious parents sometimes choose secularism; the offspring of bigoted parents often choose individualism; and the children of alcoholic or drug-addicted parents often choose clean living. Human beings possess free will, and, as numerous parents ruefully learn, their children frequently do not passively accept their families’ values.
Even in today’s government-thwarted education market, many centers of adult education prosper. A fully free market in education would enable educational entrepreneurs to expand this market immensely. Competition among private schools and tutors providing both academic and vocational training for the adult market would increase; prices would drop; options would abound. In such a marketplace, the few children whose backward parents had neglected to educate them could seek education on their own in their early years of adulthood, then move on and live lives of greater wisdom and superior career opportunities.
Finally, it is important to emphasize that there is no right to an education—just as there is no right to food, shelter, or medical care. A right involves the freedom to act on one’s best judgment and to pursue the values of one’s choice. It does not involve access to a good or service at someone else’s expense. If a person (or a citizenry) is forced to provide others with education (or anything else), then his rights are violated and he becomes, to that extent, a slave of those he involuntarily serves. A free market in education would both obviate such manifest immorality and provide immensely better options in all educational fields.
Another objection to a fully privatized educational system is that if taxpayers were not coerced to finance government schools, some families would be unable to afford quality education. The first thing to note in answer to this objection is that the coercively funded and operated government schools are precisely what make it impossible for customers to receive quality education. Another important point is that with the government monolith slain, the property, income, and sales taxes that had been levied to sustain it could and should be repealed. With their tax burden substantially diminished, families would retain more of their income and be fully free to spend it on their children’s education. Yet another point is that in a full private market for education, competition among private schools, teachers, and tutors would increase dramatically. This inevitably would drive prices down, making education increasingly affordable.
As for those families that somehow in a free market for education still could not afford to pay for any education for their children, observe that even today many private schools offer scholarships to worthy students who cannot meet the tuition.25 In a fully free market for education, such scholarships would increase and abound. Private schools are highly competitive with one another, and they all seek to showcase the value and superiority of their product. Consequently, it is in their rational self-interest to attract students who will make them shine. Scholarships are a crucial means of doing so.
It is also worth noting that voluntary charity flourishes in America even when we are taxed at today’s obscene rates. According to Giving USA Foundation’s annual report on philanthropy, “Charitable giving in the United States exceeded $300 billion for the second year in a row in 2008,” and “Education organizations received an estimated $40.94 billion, or 13 percent of the total.”26 So long as the government does not prohibit educational charities, Americans will contribute to such charities.
In short, in a fully private market for education, the few families unable to afford quality education would find no shortage of scholarships and/or charities available to assist them. Objections to privatizing the government schools simply do not hold water.
Now let us turn to the question of how government schools could be privatized.
There are, no doubt, several viable means by which this could be done, but one straightforward way is simply by auctioning off schools and their corresponding properties to the highest bidders. Sold schools would either continue under private ownership, or the properties would be used for noneducational purposes. If the schools became private schools, competition in a free market would ensure a drive toward improved education and decreased prices. If some of the properties were deployed for noneducational purposes, the resultant increase in demand for education in that area would motivate profit-seeking educational entrepreneurs to meet the demand with other venues. Either way, the market would soon teem with private schools, teachers, and tutors competing to supply the educational service demanded by millions of families whose only earlier alternative was the abysmally bad government school system.
Such a transition would necessarily take some time, and the government would have to provide fair notice and appropriate grace periods to enable government-dependent families to adjust to the free market. For instance, the government could enact a law declaring that, effective immediately, the government would begin auctioning off school properties, with transference of ownership to occur at the end of a five-year grace period. This would enable all teachers, tutors, and educational entrepreneurs to ramp up their businesses. And it would give all parents substantial time to assume full responsibility for the education of their children.
The enactment of such a policy would be followed by an explosion of private schools and tutoring services, some large-scale, others small; some in private homes (as Marva Collins began), some in multistory buildings; some religious, some secular; some profit-driven, some not. The teeming diversity of schools and the high level of educational results would soon rival those of America in the centuries before the imposition of government schooling.
We who recognize the vital nature of education to the lives of individuals and to the health of a society must demand the privatization of government-run schools and work toward the establishment of a fully private market in education. The time to advocate this change is now.
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1 Dan Lips, “Still a Nation at Risk, www.heritage.org/Research/Commentary2008/05/Still A Nation at Risk.
2 “Reading, Literacy & Education Statistics,” www.readfaster.com/education.asp.
3 Diane Ravitch and Chester Finn, What Do Our 17 Year Olds Know?: A Report of the First National Assessment of History and Literature (New York: Harper & Row, 1987), pp. 1, 43, 120; Andrew Coulson, Market Education: The Unknown History (New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Publishers, 1999), pp. 188–89.
4 Coulson, Market Education,pp. 8–10.
5 C. Bradley Thompson, “Cognitive Math Abuse in Our Classrooms,” www.aynrand.org/site/News2?page=NewsArticle&id=5410.
6 Coulson, Market Education,p. 9.
7 Coulson, Market Education,p. 15.
8 Thompson, “Cognitive Math Abuse.”
9 “Trends in Educational Funding—Public Schools: Where Does The Money Come From?,” http://social.jrank.org/pages/965/Trends-in-Educational-Funding-Public-Schools-Where-Does-Money-Come-From.html.
10 Sol Stern, “In School Reform, Billions of Dollars But Not Much Bang,” www.manhattan-institute.org/html/miarticle.htm?id=4167.
11 Coulson, Market Education,pp. 279–86.
12 Coulson, Market Education,p. 280.
13 “Markets of Competing Private Schools Outperform Public School, Study Based on 25 Years of Educational Data Effectively Settles the Debate,” Cato Institute news release, September 10, 2008, www.cato.org/pressroom.php?display=news&id=157. Coulson’s full report, “Markets vs. Monopolies in Education: A Global Review of the Evidence,” is available here: http://www.cato.org/pubs/pas/pa620.pdf.
14 Marva Collins and Civia Tamarkin, Marva Collins’ Way (New York: Putnam, 1990), pp. 126–37.
15 Hans Sennholz, ed., Public Education and Indoctrination (Irvington-on-Hudson, NY: Foundation for Economic Education, 1993), p. 38.
16 Sennholz, Public Education,pp. 22–23, 26, 38–39, 44.
17 Sennholz, Public Education,p. 23. Harvard was founded by the Great and General Court of the Massachusetts Bay Colony and named for its first donor, John Harvard. The College of William & Mary and King’s College (Columbia University) were founded by royal charter.
18 Sheldon Richman, Separating School and State (Fairfax, VA: The Future of Freedom Foundation, 1995), p. 38.
19 Richman, Separating School and State,p. 38.
20 Thomas Sowell, Inside American Education: The Decline, the Deception, the Dogmas (New York: The Free Press, 1993), p.7.
21 Pierre Du Pont de Nemours, National Education in the United States of America,translated from the second French edition of 1812 and with an introduction by B. G. Du Pont (Newark, DE: University of Delaware Press, 1923), pp. 3–4; quoted in Sennholz, Public Education,pp. 23–24.
22 Sennholz, Public Education,p. 44; John Taylor Gatto, “Our Prussian School System,” Cato Policy Report, March/April 1993, p. 1.
23 National Center for Educational Statistics, U.S. Department of Education, Fast Facts, http://nces.ed.gov/fastfacts/display.asp?id=372.
24 Isabel Lyman, The Homeschooling Revolution (Amherst, MA: Bench Press International, 2000), pp. 59–69.
25 Melissa Kelly, “Teaching at Private vs. Public Schools,” http://712educators.about.com/od/jobopenings/a/private-public.htm.
26 “U.S. Charitable Giving Estimated to Be $307.65 Billion in 2008,” Giving USA Foundation, http://www.philanthropy.iupui.edu/News/2009/docs/GivingReaches300billion_06102009.pdf.