Education in a Free Society - The Objective Standard

In “The New Abolitionism: Why Education Emancipation is the Moral Imperative of Our Time” (TOS, Winter 2012–13), I argued that America’s government school system is immoral and antithetical to a free society, and that it must be abolished—not reformed. The present essay calls for the complete separation of school and state, indicates what a fully free market in education would look like, and explains why such a market would provide high-quality education for all children.

The Need for Separation of School and State

What is the proper relationship of school and state? In a free society, who is responsible for educating children? Toward answering these questions, consider James Madison’s reasoning regarding the proper relationship of government and religion—reasoning that readily applies to the issue of education. In 1784, in response to Patrick Henry’s call for a compulsory tax to support Christian (particularly Episcopalian) ministers, Madison penned his famous “Memorial and Remonstrance,” a stirring defense of religious freedom and the separation of church and state. The heart of his argument can be reduced to three principles: first, individuals have an inalienable right to practice their religion as they see fit; second, religion must not be directed by the state; and third, religion is corrupted by government interference or control. Few Americans today would disagree with Madison’s reasoning.

One virtue of Madison’s response to Henry’s bill is that its principles and logic extend beyond church-and-state relations. In fact, the principles and logic of his argument apply seamlessly to the relationship of education and state. If we substitute the word “education” for “religion” throughout Madison’s text, we find a perfect parallel: first, parents have an inalienable right to educate their children according to their values; second, education must not be directed by the state; and third, education is corrupted by government interference or control. The parallel is stark, and the logic applies equally in both cases.

Just as Americans have a right to engage in whatever non-rights-violating religious practices they choose, so Americans have a right to engage in whatever educational practices they choose. And just as Americans would not grant government the authority to run their Sunday schools, so they should not grant government the authority to run their schools Monday through Friday.

Parents (and guardians) have a right to direct the education of their children.1 Parents’ children are their children—not their neighbors’ children or the community’s children or the state’s children. Consequently, parents have a right to educate their children in accordance with the parents’ judgment and values. (Of course, if parents neglect or abuse their children, they can and should be prosecuted, and legitimate laws are on the books to this effect.) Further, parents, guardians, and citizens in general have a moral right to use their wealth as they judge best. Accordingly, they have a moral right and should have a legal right to patronize or not patronize a given school, to fund or not fund a given educational institution—and no one has a moral right or properly a legal right to force them to patronize or fund one of which they disapprove. These are relatively straightforward applications of the rights to life, liberty, property, and the pursuit of happiness—the rights on which America was founded.

But the educational system in America today systematically ignores and violates these rights. At its core, America’s system of state-controlled education is compulsory. It involves force from top to bottom: The state forces children to attend its schools (or state-approved alternatives). It forces taxpayers—whether or not they use the schools—to pay for them. It dictates what is taught in the classroom through its mandatory curriculum. And it dictates how teachers are to teach the content, through its requirement and control of teacher certification.

Because a government school system violates rights in such a fundamentally crucial area of life—education—it constitutes, as Madison said of a religious establishment, “a dangerous abuse of power.” Government should never be in the business of forcing or controlling the mind—and nowhere is this principle more important than with respect to the education of young minds. Unfortunately, many Americans today willingly accept this dangerous abuse of power.

Although most parents embrace the responsibility of feeding their children and wouldn’t dream of letting the government dictate what will be put in their children’s bodies, they relinquish the responsibility of educating their children and permit the government to dictate what will be put in their children’s minds. Few Americans see that this is what they are doing, but this is what they are doing. Consider how this all begins. . . .

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Endnotes

1 For a much fuller discussion of the thorny issue of children’s right and parental rights and responsibilities, see C. Bradley Thompson, “Do Children Have a ‘Right’ to an Education?,” in Freedom and School Choice in American Education, edited by Greg Forster and C. Bradley Thompson (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011), 129–54.

2 Lester F. Ward, Dynamic Sociology, or Applied Social Science, 2 vols. (New York: D. Appleton and Company, 1898), vol. 2., pp. 589–90.

3 The best study of the intellectual and political corruption of the teachers’ unions is Peter Brimelow, The Worm in the Apple: How the Teachers Unions Are Destroying American Education (New York: HarperCollins, 2003). Also see Andrew J. Coulson, “How Do Teachers’ Unions Affect Public School Outcomes,” Cato Institute (September 12, 2012): http://www.cato.org/blog/how-do-teachers-unions-affect-public-school-outcomes.

4 Dr. Eric Daniels now teaches at the Le Port Schools in Southern California. The “Thompson Paradox” is similar to the “Fenno Paradox,” which says the American people generally disapprove of the U.S. Congress as a whole, but they nevertheless think their local congressman is doing a great job.

5 For data on how poorly American students are doing academically when compared to students from other developed countries around the world, see the following 2012 study from Harvard University: Eric A. Hanushek, Paul E. Peterson, and Ludger Woessmann, “Achievement Growth: International and U.S. State Trends in Student Performance,” July 2012, http://www.hks.harvard.edu/pepg/PDF/Papers/PEPG12-03_CatchingUp.pdf.

6 See Michael A. LaFerrara, “Toward a Free Market in Education: School Vouchers or Tax Credits?,” The Objective Standard, vol. 6, no. 1, Spring 2011, https://www.theobjectivestandard.com/issues/2011-spring/school-vouchers-tax-credits.asp.

7 In more-modern English, it might read, “Congress shall make no law establishing or permitting state involvement in education or limiting the freedom of parents or guardians to educate their children as they choose.”

8 The best history of free-market education is Andrew J. Coulson’s Market Education: The Unknown History (New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Publishers, 1999). Also see Sheldon Richman, Separating School & State: How to Liberate America’s Families (Fairfax, VA: The Future of Freedom Foundation, 1995). For examples of how the profit motive would apply to education entrepreneurship, see James B. Stanfield, ed., The Profit Motive in Education: Continuing the Revolution (London: The Institute of Economic Affairs, 2012).

9 Obviously, schools in a free-market system can be organized as “nonprofit” institutions. Although the current legal definition of a not-for-profit corporation is largely an outgrowth of the laws implementing the income tax, in a fully free market businesses could organize along comparable lines. But, in the broad sense, not-for-profit corporations must still earn “profits” as they must seek to cover their expenses through tuition payments and voluntary contributions.

10 Amanda Ripley, “The $4 Million Teacher,” Wall Street Journal (August 3, 2013): http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424127887324635904578639780253571520.html.

11 For an excellent discussion of the new kinds of schools and curricula available to parents, see “Interviews with Innovators in Private Education,” The Objective Standard, vol. 7, no. 4 (Winter 2012–13).

12 http://historyatourhouse.com/.

13 Christopher Chantrill, “U.S. Government Spending,” http://www.usgovernmentspending.com/year_spending_2013USbn_15bs2n_20#usgs302 (2013 data accessed October 30, 2013).

14 https://www.khanacademy.org/about.

15 Hana N. Rouse and Justin C. Worland, “Harvard and MIT Launch Virtual Learning Initiative EdX,” The Harvard Crimson (May 2, 2012): http://www.thecrimson.com/article/2012/5/2/mit-edx-virtual-online/.

16 Ripley, “The $4 Million Teacher.”

17 “Children’s Scholarship Fund,” Wikipedia, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Children’s_Scholarship_Fund.

18 Greg Winter, “Those Bake Sales Add Up, to $9 Billion or So,” New York Times (November 15, 2004): http://www.nytimes.com/2004/11/15/giving/15WINT.html?_r=0&pagewanted=print&position=.

19 See James Tooley, The Beautiful Tree: A Personal Journey into How the World’s Poorest People Are Educating Themselves (Washington, DC: Cato Institute, 2009). Also see Pauline Dixon’s breathtaking 2012 TED lecture, “How Schools Are Serving the Poorest,” at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gzv4nBoXoZc.

20 Tooley, The Beautiful Tree, p. 124.

21 Wendell Phillips Garrison, William Lloyd Garrison, 1805–1879: The Story of His Life, Told by His Children, vol. 1 (New York: Century Company, 1885), pp. 224–26.

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