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.

One day, when a child turns five or six, his parents drive him to the local government school and say, “Good-bye.” What the parents typically do not realize is that when they say good-bye to that child, they are literally and forever saying good-bye to that child—to that unique, irreplaceable child they have raised, nurtured, and loved since birth. When the child comes home in the days, weeks, and months ahead, he or she will have become a different person; his mind will have changed, his views of the world will have formed, his values will have developed. In time, he will have spent his formative years—seven hours per day, five days per week for thirteen years—at a government institution whose purpose is to indoctrinate him with state-approved ideas and values, regardless of whether his parents approve of those ideas and values. When it comes to state-run schools, as government school advocate Lester Frank Ward stated candidly in 1897, “the result desired by the state is a wholly different one from that desired by parents, guardians, and pupils.”2 The goal of a compulsory, state-run educational system is to ensure that children conform to the desires of the state. Education by the state is education for the state.

Given such facts about government education (see my article “The New Abolitionism” for many more), one conclusion is clear: America’s system of government-run schools must be abolished. This is the only policy consistent with the rights of parents and guardians and with the proper purpose of government, which is to protect and not to violate rights.

Major Obstacles to Abolishing the Government Schools

Abolishing the government school system will not be easy. The forces defending the status quo are powerful and entrenched. At present, three major groups support the current system, and many of their members will oppose all efforts toward establishing a free market in education.

The first of these, the education establishment—the teachers’ unions, the so-called ed schools or teacher training institutions, and the government education bureaucracy—will, like southern slaveholders, fight tooth and nail against the emancipation of America’s children and their parents. Many people in the education establishment believe their jobs depend on maintaining the status quo—and in many ways they do. Many in the education establishment are incompetent and would not fare well if required to compete with the competent rather than rest on their laurels. And many in the establishment are simply not concerned with educating children and will do anything to keep their jobs, regardless of how bad the schools are or become.3

But the education establishment is not the main obstacle to abolishing the government school system and adopting a free market in education. The greatest impediment to educational freedom is the American people themselves.

Most Americans have been convinced—in large part by the education establishment—that the “public” school system, despite its obvious failings, is the bedrock of our “democracy” and the source of our national prosperity. As regards the government schools, Americans have a kind of “Stockholm syndrome.” They support the very schools in which they suffered profound abuse and on behalf of which their rights are routinely violated. Because I frequently cite the significance of this phenomenon, my former colleague, the historian Eric Daniels, has termed it the “Thompson Paradox”: Most Americans recognize that the nation’s education system is failing but nevertheless insist that their local government school is doing a great job of educating their children.4 Ironically, American parents express the highest degree of satisfaction with their local schools of any parents in the developed world, despite the fact that their children are among the worst performers on international tests.5 This dissonance is fueled by the education establishment, which spends millions of taxpayer dollars every year on propaganda to the effect that government schools are necessary, doing pretty well, and could be doing much better if only they had more money.

The third obstacle to establishing a free market in education is the so-called school choice movement. Despite all of its rhetoric about freedom and choice, this movement does not promote freedom or choice in education; rather, it promotes the perpetuation of government schools and the expansion of government involvement in education.

The main way the school choice movement does this is by advocating vouchers, which are, in effect, food stamps for education. Voucher programs assume that children have a “right” to a tax-funded education and thus that taxpayers must be forced to support government schools and/or pay for vouchers. But if real rights are to be protected and if education is to be freed from government force, the premise that children have a “right” to a tax-funded education must be rejected, not embraced.

Further, vouchers undermine and corrupt private education by gradually turning private schools into government-controlled schools. When government provides students with vouchers, government obviously has a say in where and how that money is to be used.

Finally, the purpose of voucher programs is to reform the existing system of government-controlled education by injecting some degree of choice and competition into it. The goal is to make a corrupt system more efficient and effective in order to save and perpetuate it. To the extent that vouchers marginally or temporarily improve education, they undermine efforts to do what morally must be done. They undermine efforts to end government involvement in education—and they extend the coercive reach of government into private schools. (For details on the problems with vouchers, see Michael A. LaFerrara’s “Toward a Free Market in Education: School Vouchers or Tax Credits?” TOS, Spring 2011.)

If we care about protecting individual rights and enabling all American children—rich, poor, and in between—to receive a quality education, we must abolish government schools and establish a genuinely free market in education.

Essential Steps toward Abolishing Government Schools and Establishing a Free Market in Education

How do we begin? We should begin as did the American Anti-Slavery Society, whose motto was “Immediate emancipation, immediately begun.” In the case of education, we should begin now, and with the education of adults.

Although government schools obviously cannot be abolished overnight, we can immediately begin the process of abolishing them. The first and most important step in this process is what the antislavery abolitionists called moral suasion. We must educate and persuade a sufficient number of Americans as to the moral necessity of dismantling the government school system and establishing a free market in education. All efforts toward political action will be useless unless we convince a substantial number of Americans that government schooling is morally wrong, inconsistent with a free society, incapable of properly educating children, and therefore in need of abolition, not reform. Evidence in support of our case abounds, but few Americans see the relevant facts as evidence for our cause. We must help them to see it. This is our single most important task.

Toward this end, we must understand the facts and arguments in support of our case sufficiently to discuss them intelligently with others; we must share with them the articles and books in support of our cause, as these will answer questions we might not address definitively in conversation; and we must urge them to join us in this moral revolution.

We should also, if possible, move our children from government schools to private schools, or homeschool them—and we should encourage others to do so as well. This is good for our children, who will undoubtedly receive a better education, and good for the abolitionist movement, as it reduces Americans’ reliance on government schools and thus lessens resistance to their abolition.

In addition to educating people regarding the problems with government schools, we must understand and be able to articulate the essential steps that ultimately must be taken in order to end them and establish a fully free market. And we must understand and be able to articulate in essence how a fully free market could and would enable all children—including the poor—to receive an excellent education. Let us take these in turn.

First, and foremost in our efforts to educate people, we must be clear about the ultimate goal and why it is a moral imperative. Our ultimate goal is and must be to abolish government schools and replace them with a fully free market in education. We are calling for the complete separation of school and state—just as the founders called for the complete separation of church and state, and for the same reason. We must think, speak, and act on principles commensurate with this goal, and we must resist all temptation to compromise our principles (i.e., individual rights and the evil of government involvement in education) for the mirage of short-term gains that actually move us away from that goal (such as vouchers). To be principled is to be principled all the time. The moral authority of the abolitionist movement depends on its moral consistency.

Being principled does not mean never compromising; rather, it means never compromising the principles. It can be perfectly permissible to say, in effect, “Sure, we’ll agree to abolish compulsory attendance laws now and hold off on abolishing the Department of Education until later.” This moves us toward our ultimate goal and not at all away from it. This is a compromise on tactics, not on principle. An example of a compromise on principle would be to say, in effect, “Sure, we agree that government should be paying for children’s education; we just want families to be able to spend those tax dollars at the school of their choice.” This is a compromise of principle: It concedes that children have a “right” to that which they do not have a right. That is a huge difference, and it is a difference that abolitionists must never lose sight of.

With our ultimate goal and our principled approach in mind, we can proceed to discuss the various steps that must be taken. These steps can be broken into federal, state, and local objectives.

What I propose here is by no means exhaustive, nor must the steps be taken in any particular order. Different states with different laws may require different tactics by which to achieve progress toward abolition. That said, here are some of the major steps that must be taken in order to end government involvement in schooling and establish a fully free market in education.

Eliminate all federal government involvement in education, which means:

  • Abolish the Department of Education.
  • Repeal all federal education regulations and standards such as the “No Child Left Behind” Act and “Common Core.”
  • Abolish all federal taxation for education.
  • Abolish all national standards for teacher education and certification.

Eliminate all state government involvement in education, which means:

  • Abolish state departments of education.
  • Repeal all government-mandated curricular standards and testing.
  • Decertify the so-called education schools.
  • Repeal all compulsory attendance laws.
  • Repeal all laws regulating the establishment and operation of home and private schools.

Eliminate all local government involvement in education, which means:

  • Eliminate local property taxes for education.
  • Implement universal tax credits for tuition and scholarships.6
  • Auction off the government schools to the private sector—that is, to entrepreneurs, voluntary associations of parents, private school operators, and the like.

Again, these objectives have no necessary order. Any progress toward any of them at any time is good. The result of accomplishing all of these objectives will be the abolition of the government school system. And, to prevent this great Moloch from arising again, we should demand that our representatives in government draft and pass an amendment to the U.S. Constitution (and pursue similar measures for state constitutions) that would permanently disestablish all government schooling. Such an amendment might read as follows: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of education, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of parents to choose how or by whom their children will be educated.”7

What a Free Market in Education Would Look Like
and How it Would Work

As the government school system is dismantled, more and more opportunities will arise for entrepreneurs and educators to pursue free-market alternatives. And once the government school system is completely abolished, a fully free market will enable educational alternatives and opportunities we can only imagine.

Of course, we cannot specify in detail what a fully free market in education will look like, just as we cannot know what our computers or phones will be like in five years, never mind twenty or thirty years. What we can know is that, given the law of supply and demand and given the enormous value that parents place on education, education entrepreneurs—when left free—will innovate and compete such that educational alternatives and opportunities will expand, and costs of education will (generally) decrease.8

To the extent that businessmen and educators are free to act on their judgment and to pursue profits, they can and will work to provide good education at affordable prices. That is the only way to make money in a free market. Likewise, to the extent that parents are free to act on their judgment, they will pursue the best educational opportunities they can find given the needs of their children and the money they can afford to pay; thus, parents will reward businessmen and entrepreneurs who provide good educational opportunities at affordable prices. The result is a win-win-win-win system in which businessmen, educators, parents, and students all profit and prosper.9

When school leaders and teachers know they must compete for every child who might attend their school, and when they know that parents are always on the lookout for a better and less-expensive product, they are more likely to deliver the kinds of education that their customers want at affordable prices. Quality goes up and prices go down. This is how a free market works, and we can see it in every sector to the extent that it is free.

Consider the cell phone industry or the clothing industry or the Lasik surgery industry, or any other relatively free sector of the economy. What you will see is that when people are free to produce and trade in accordance with their judgment, opportunities and alternatives multiply, and prices make economic sense. That’s the way it works for all goods and services in a market economy. And education is no exception.

In a free market for education, new schools would be created to meet the demand, resulting in a cornucopia of educational diversity. New for-profit and nonprofit schools would open. Existing private schools would expand. Church-run schools would open or expand. University- and college-run schools would open or expand. Schools run by major corporations such as Apple and Boeing would open or expand. Big chain schools owned and run by tutoring companies such as Sylvan Learning Centers, small neighborhood schools run by voluntary associations of parents, and online private schools owned and administered by education entrepreneurs would open or expand. And, of course, homeschooling would thrive.

Imagine a world in which Apple computers, Google, and other large technology companies start math and science schools for the children of their employees because they think they can teach those subjects better than competitors can. Might hugely successful companies run by brilliant entrepreneurs and engineers on the order of Steve Jobs and Sergey Brin be able to figure out how to teach math and science well and at reasonable prices? Apple already provides summertime computer camps for the public at their stores across the country at prices that can’t be beat—namely, free. Not to be outdone by a competitor, IBM also runs free summer innovation camps for high school students.

For a further indication of what a free market in education would look like, consider what’s happening in South Korea, which boasts a booming $17-billion business in private, after-school tutoring. Known in South Korea as “hagwons,” these private tutoring academies serve as a kind of shadow education system to supplement the government schools, which, unsurprisingly, are systemically mediocre. The hagwons offer classes in every subject, providing much better teachers and hence achieving much better results than do the government schools. Since the rise of these private tutoring companies, South Korean students have rocketed to the top of world education rankings. According to the Wall Street Journal, most South Koreans were illiterate sixty years ago, but today their fifteen-year-olds rank second in worldwide reading tests. Because of these private, competitive tutoring services, 47 percent of South Korean students are ranked “advanced”; by contrast, only 7 percent of U.S. students are ranked that high.10

In the United States, we are seeing a burgeoning private education market that is branching out in multiple directions. Education and tutoring companies, large and small, are revolutionizing the content and delivery of education.11 Some of the relatively well-known companies in this category are Hooked on Phonics, Singapore Math, Rosetta Stone, Kumon Learning Centers, and Khan Academy. Many others less well known are also providing excellent educational opportunities for students of all levels and means. Here are just a few: Advance Confidentiality is a personal academic coaching business specializing in one-on-one and small-group tutoring services for traditional and homeschooled students and their parents. Academic Earth provides free video courses from the world’s top universities on virtually every subject imaginable as well as SAT and LSAT prep courses. Nurturing Wisdom is an in-home tutoring service in Chicago and San Francisco with more than one hundred tutors. Grammar Revolution is a Web-based education company that provides grammar materials to schoolteachers and homeschoolers. History at Our House is an online school with live and archived full-year classes on a wide variety of American, European, Asian, and ancient history topics.12 (My own children have taken several History at Our House courses.) The list goes on and on.

All this is happening in a system in which the government (federal, state, and local) is coercively retarding the market for private education by forcibly taking $935 billion from American taxpayers every year for government education programs.13

A fully free market would be unimaginably diverse. Some schools would focus on specialized academic topics such as math and science or the arts and humanities; some would focus on a great-books classical curriculum; some would specialize in music; others would specialize in vocational training, offering courses in commercial fishing, farming, baking, plumbing, information technology, building construction, and countless other fields. Some schools would specialize in working with gifted children; some would specialize in working with those who have learning disabilities; and others would specialize in working with those who have severe mental or physical disabilities. And, of course, some schools would specialize in sports, as does Montverde Academy in Florida, which offers a program for gifted soccer players from around the world. Wherever substantial demands exist for education, entrepreneurs and educators would work to provide it—if they were free to do so.

In a free market for education, there would also be a surge in religious schools. Already many religious schools operate across America, and as demand for private schools increased with the abolition of government schools, existing religious schools would expand and additional religious schools would arise.

Likewise, explicitly secular schools would multiply and expand. Today, Objectivists own and operate several schools, which focus exclusively on secular academic subjects such as reading, writing, history, math, and science. In a fully free market, such schools would proliferate.

And not only would the kinds of schools and types of curricula expand; technologies for delivering education would also constantly expand and improve. The Internet, of course, has been a huge boon to the education industry; in a fully free market, it and related technologies would continually provide new and better ways to deliver content far and wide. Teleconferencing and Skype have revolutionized homeschooling in recent years, and the success of these technologies has invited competition that has required all involved to innovate and improve or become obsolete. The Khan Academy now offers courses in virtually every subject and at every grade level—all of it accessible from any computer on the planet—and all for free.14

Major colleges and universities are joining this educational bonanza as well. For instance, Harvard and MIT recently signed an agreement to create a virtual school using their best professors.15 A teenager living in rural Alaska can now take an advanced course in astrophysics with one of the world’s top scholars through the Harvard-MIT online program.

Education innovations and technologies are already booming and disrupting the government-run, monopolistic system of education—and a fully free market in education would dramatically expand their development.

In a free market for education, the ways in which schools are administered would be more diverse, as well. Principals, for instance, would be able to hire and fire teachers without burdensome regulations or union restrictions. Likewise, owners of schools or boards of directors would be able to fire incompetent principals or administrators who do not uphold the values of the school’s owners and customers. And schools would be able to hire noncertified teachers who might have advanced degrees in mathematics or physics, for example, or brilliant polymaths with no degrees at all. (Today, in the surreal world of America’s “public” schools, a highly decorated Ivy League Ph.D. with multiple teaching awards but with no government certification is not permitted to teach at his neighborhood government school, yet a semiliterate “education” major who took courses in bulletin-board design—yes, such courses exist in America’s “ed” schools—is “qualified.”)

In the hagwon system in South Korea, the directors of the private tutoring companies spend much of their day scouring the Internet looking to recruit potential star teachers in order to compete with their rivals. In this competitive, free-market microcosm, parents and students choose their tutors, which means the best tutors usually get the most students and the most remuneration. Pay is based on performance and demand. The Wall Street Journal reports that a top “rock star” tutor in South Korea, Kim Ki-hoon, earns $4 million per year for teaching English. Kim works a sixty-hour week, teaches 120 students in person, and tutors 150,000 students online. “The harder I work,” said Mr. Kim, “the more I make.”16 Likewise, if South Korean tutors receive low performance evaluations from their students, or if they don’t generate enough new students to take their courses, they are fired.

If America moves to a fully free market in education, we will likely see tens of thousands of American retirees with advanced degrees in specialized subjects coming out of retirement to work (for pay or as volunteers) in America’s new private schools, just as we will see countless twenty-something computer experts teaching online computer science classes. In a free market, we can be certain that many more of America’s best and brightest will choose to teach.

Further, in a fully free market for education, we would see much greater diversity in teaching methods. Some schools would use old, musty books and classical curricula, and their teachers would use the old-fashioned chalk-and-talk method of teaching. Some would use the observation-based, hierarchical method of teaching associated with Ayn Rand’s philosophy of Objectivism (as they do at the LePort Schools and at VanDamme Academy in southern California). Some would use the Montessori method, others would use the Waldorf method, and still others would use the Marva Collins way. Some might even continue using the so-called progressive method (which has done untold damage to the minds of American children)—but probably not for long.

In a fully free market for education, bad ideas and bad methodologies would soon be driven out and replaced by ideas and methodologies that are derived from the factual requirements of human cognition and thus actually work. Competition would inspire school administrators and teachers to innovate when necessary but also to adhere to tried-and-true methods that have worked successfully for centuries—such as phonics for reading instruction. As a result, bad methodologies—such as the disastrous “whole language” method of teaching reading that has been foisted on our children by government schools, the method that eschews phonics in favor of rote memorization based on the shape of words—most likely would come to a halt. In a for-profit environment, a widespread and sustained disaster on the order of the “whole language” movement would be virtually impossible.

Finally, a free market for education would provide much greater variety in both the prices for and the means of financing education. Some schools would be for profit and some nonprofit; some would be free (for the students) and some might cost tens of thousands of dollars. Because American parents would no longer have to pay thousands of dollars in local property taxes every year (whether directly or through inflated rent) for failing government schools, they would be able to use that money for private schools or tutors—or to fund and support scholarships for children of lesser means. Because more corporations, more churches, more Internet entrepreneurs and the like would open and expand schools and other educational opportunities, competition would increase and costs for education would generally drop. And, as with Khan Academy and Google and IBM camps, even more education would be free.

Although no one can predict in detail how the education market would develop if left fully free, we can be sure that, unencumbered by government controls and taxes, entrepreneurs and educators would create effective, diverse, and constantly improving methods of education, and parents would have more money and more choices.

What about Poor Children?

Given the preceding discussion, the question “How would children from poor families be educated without public schools?” has essentially been answered. Even so, let’s examine further how and why a fully free market in education would benefit the poor.

To begin, observe that (contrary to unjust presumptions on the part of some people) lower-income Americans generally love their children and want a good education for them so they can succeed and prosper. One need only watch the documentaries The Lottery and Waiting for Superman to realize that lower-income Americans will go to great lengths to make sure their children receive a good education. If it seems as though some American parents do not care much about the education of their children, one reason is that the government has shorn them of their parental rights and responsibilities and made them reliant on government schools as a surrogate babysitting service.

Observe further that the costs to educate children in a free market will not be the same as they are today. The high price of many private schools today is largely a consequence of their artificially limited supply, which is due to the existence of government schools and the high regulatory and tax burdens the government imposes on private schools. America’s movement to a free market for education would lead to an explosion in the creation of new schools (traditional and nontraditional), all competing for customers, which would drive down prices.

Further, in a free market, charitable giving to scholarship funds for poor children to attend private schools would greatly increase. We already see the development of such programs despite the government’s interference in education. For example, in 1998 Ted Forstmann and John Walton created the Children’s Scholarship Fund to provide academic scholarships for poor children. Unsurprisingly, in the first year alone, 1.25 million families applied for scholarships that would allow their children to escape the government schools. In New York City alone, the Children’s Scholarship Fund received 162,000 applications in its first year of operation. And this massive demand has been met by substantial supply. Over the past thirteen years, the CSF has awarded $525 million in scholarships for children of lower-income families to attend private schools.17 With the abolition of government schools, Americans would have much more disposable income for such philanthropic giving.

As just one indicator of the responsibility that American parents and children are willing to assume for the sake of education, consider a story that appeared a few years ago in the New York Times. Titled “Those Bake Sales Add Up, to $9 Billion or So,” the article illustrates how entrepreneurial and charitable Americans can be when it comes to raising private money for education.18 The article tells, among other things, of Nadaburg Elementary School in Wittmann, Arizona, where about 70 percent of the children are from low-income homes. This school’s students, teachers, and administrators take frequent bus trips to wealthy retirement communities such as Sun City Grand in order to meet and sign up benefactors. The teachers and children meet with potential supporters face-to-face and ask for supplemental funding in order to improve their substandard, government education. The program is successful; the retirees do provide funding, and the schools are able to improve thereby. In a free market—in which people would no longer be burdened by heavy taxes to fund failed government schools—we can expect charitable giving to expand dramatically.

If these facts are not enough, consider the amazing and revolutionary research James Tooley and Pauline Dixon have conducted in the third world.19 For the past twenty-five years, Tooley and Dixon have been studying education in Africa and Asia, and what they have found is remarkable.

In the shantytown slums in Lagos, Nigeria, and Hyderabad, India, surprisingly large numbers of poor parents are sending their children to unregistered, unregulated private schools despite the existence of “free” government schools. In the slums of Hyderabad, 80 percent of all children attend private schools; in the shantytowns of Lagos, more than 70 percent do. These slum areas house scores of private schools, which sometimes charge little more than $2 per month in tuition—around 10 percent of average income in the area.

How is this possible? Why do people start and operate these schools? People start and operate them to meet a specific need. The government schools fail to provide good education, so education entrepreneurs have moved in to fill the void and deliver quality education. The schools range from partnerships in small schoolhouses with fifty students to single-proprietorships in huts with a shingle on the door and five students.

Why are desperately poor parents paying for private education when state schools are available for “free”? The answer may surprise defenders of government schooling. The parents of these students—like parents everywhere (with very rare exceptions)—love their children and will go to great lengths to ensure that they get a good education.

Not surprisingly, the children in these private schools score considerably higher on achievement tests in math and English than do the children attending the “free” government schools, despite the fact that the teachers in the government schools are paid at least four times more than those in the private schools. The private schools are far more effective at a fraction of the cost, precisely because they are accountable to customers who can, at any time, withdraw their children and put them in competing schools. And because teachers in these schools are accountable to principals who can fire them at any time. And because principals in these schools are accountable to owners of the schools, who can fire them at any time. In essence, these schools are free from government—which means, free to educate children.

One parent summed up the difference between these shantytown private schools and the government schools with a succinct analogy: “If you go to a market and are offered free fruit and vegetables, they will be rotten. If you want fresh fruit and vegetables, you have to pay for them.”20

Given that private schools can meet the needs of these children despite their extreme poverty and despite the continued existence of government schools, imagine how much better fully private education could meet the needs of American children—including the poorest children—given the much greater resources available here.


Only a free market in education is consistent with a rights-respecting society. The principle of individual rights requires the separation of school and state, the full freedom of educators to produce and parents to purchase education services in a competitive market where providers and customers strive continually for better ideas, better methods, and better results—at lower costs.

Just as our forefathers successfully fought to end slavery, and their forefathers successfully fought to separate church and state, let us carry on the fight to expand freedom in America by ending the tyranny that is the government school system.

Toward this vital and noble end, we principled abolitionists of the 21st century must proceed with the unwavering tenacity and urgency that enabled earlier abolitionists to succeed. We must say, as William Lloyd Garrison did:

On this subject, I do not wish to think, or to speak, or write, with moderation. No! no! Tell a man whose house is on fire to give a moderate alarm; tell him to moderately rescue his wife from the hands of the ravisher; tell the mother to gradually extricate her babe from the fire into which it has fallen—but urge me not to use moderation in a cause like the present. I am in earnest—I will not equivocate—I will not excuse—I will not retreat a single inch—AND I WILL BE HEARD.21

We must proceed not with moderation but with the full force of the moral case for the abolition of government schools, the complete separation of school and state, and the establishment of a fully free market in education. And we must be heard.

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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):

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,

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,

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):

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).


13 Christopher Chantrill, “U.S. Government Spending,” (2013 data accessed October 30, 2013).


15 Hana N. Rouse and Justin C. Worland, “Harvard and MIT Launch Virtual Learning Initiative EdX,” The Harvard Crimson (May 2, 2012):

16 Ripley, “The $4 Million Teacher.”

17 “Children’s Scholarship Fund,” Wikipedia,’s_Scholarship_Fund.

18 Greg Winter, “Those Bake Sales Add Up, to $9 Billion or So,” New York Times (November 15, 2004):

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

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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