One of the arguments made for public schooling is that the proper functioning of a Republic such as the United States requires an educated and informed electorate. And to that end, hundreds of billions of dollars per year at Federal, State, and Local levels are shelled out. Education is also one of those things that has what Milton Friedman called a strong “neighborhood effect”–people obtain benefits from other people being educated whether they pay for it or not.
But is that really the best way, or even a good way, to go about it?
In the early days of the colonies that would become the United States, one of the first things small settlements would do, after their immediate survival needs were mostly taken care of, was build a school and hire a schoolteacher. This was all done with local resources, people pitching in what they had including the actual physical labor of building the schoolhouse.
The upkeep of the school, and the teacher’s pay, was funded by fees paid for the children to attend.
This was all strictly voluntary. It was also nearly universal. Everywhere you went, there was a school. And children, despite their being no laws mandating attendance, went. Some folk might have been dismissive of the idea of formal schooling, but that was the exception. A strong majority sent their children to school. Even the poor would usually scrimp and save, take extra work, trade labor for tuition–whatever they had to do to see that their children attended school. These local communities could also control what was taught and how so that it suited what they saw as best for their own children. If they didn’t like the way the school was operating, they could change it. And any group that could get together enough resources for a small building–which could even be a room in their own home which did double duty when school was not in session–and hire a teacher could do so if they did not like the way the rest of the community ran the school.
It wasn’t until 1852 that Massachusetts became the first State to pass a compulsory school attendance law. It was not until 1918 Mississippi became the last of the then 48 States to pass a compulsory attendance law. Even without the compulsion a strong majority did.
This was all done locally. Over time, however, the State and later the Federal government took more of an interest. This wasn’t driven by parents saying that they needed government intervention to make the schools better for the children’s sake. It was driven by educators who, I am quite certain, believed that they could do a better job with better funding and a more secure livelihood (with pay not entirely dependent on what the local community can scrape up).
Let me reiterate, the motive for making the schools publicly funded was not any dissatisfaction with schooling but by a relatively small group of teachers and administrators believing they can do better. And, as I said, I am quite certain they were entirely sincere in their belief. They might be excused for the paternalism inherent in the belief that the instructors knew better than the parents and that the State, and later Federal, officials knew better than the locals but it was there.
As time went on and more and more State and Federal funding, and with it control (Federal money always comes with Federal strings) increased, the power of the local parents say over their children’s education decreased. The problems were the same ones that came from any central planning scheme–bureaucracies tend to evolve according to their own inherent logic and larger organizations tend to involve more of a standardization a “one size fits all” approach.
One size, however, does not fit all.
Nevertheless, the arguments were made that public education would give us better schools, would make us more competitive in the world, and also provide the educated electorate that would make our Republic work right. Arguments were that it would be more efficient, that it would help “level” the difference in education between rich and poor, and would create a common heritage to help foster national unity. Those arguments, however, fail on examination.
First there’s the efficiency argument. That can be dismissed almost immediately. What public funding amounts to is taking money away from people, passing it through a government bureaucracy, then using that money–less what was spent to pay for the bureaucracy–to fund schooling. More efficient than letting people who choose to do so pay for the schooling that seems appropriate to them. While there might be an argument for funding the education of a small part of the population–say as an aid to the destitute (and even there I am skeptical that government solutions are better than private)–basically taking from everybody to give back to the bulk of the population is not economically defensible. It’s having people pay for their own and their children’s education with extra steps. As I point out in a previous post, we spend more and more money on education without producing better results.
The economic efficiency aspect is also where the “neighborhood effect” would come into play. However, in many ways the neighborhood effect is of a lesser role when it comes to education. Yes, it’s good to live in a society with well educated doctors and engineers so long as somebody pays for them. But the doctors and engineers themselves benefit enough from their education (and while there are some exceptions parents are generally willing to count benefits to their children as though they were their own benefit–I know I’m willing to go to a lot of trouble for my daughter’s welfare) to justify the expenditure without the need to “bill” for the neighborhood effect.
Second, there is “leveling,” the “equality” argument. A simple examination of public schools in well-to-do neighborhoods compared to poor and inner city neighborhoods should quickly disabuse anyone of that notion. When you also include that the very well-to-do are much more capable of affording the “double payment” (the taxes paying for public school plus tuition for a private school) to send their children to expensive and “elite” private schools, you can see that this argument breaks down entirely.
Then there’s the common heritage for national unity. While once that was a stated purpose of schools that has largely been abandoned. In the age of “multiculturalism” schools often don’t even require a common language, let alone teach a common heritage and culture. Add to that the constant experiments in changing teaching methods to “solve” what are essentially solved problems in teaching basic skills with a “one size (at the moment anyway–tomorrow we may try a different size) approach” and you have a recipe for disaster. (Yes, some few might not respond well to the traditional methods of teaching arithmetic but most do–and if the new techniques might work better for those few, then use them on those few, don’t inflict them on the majority who respond well to the traditional methods).
There’s a fourth argument: if we don’t force people to pay through taxes they won’t bother to provide for schools, spending all their money on profligate living. History, however, tends to suggest otherwise. This is just another bit of “daddy knows best” paternalism. Perhaps it is too late to turn back that clock, at least quickly, because people are so dependent on tax-funded schools that they’d be lost if that were suddenly taken away. I have discussed that particular problem–sudden reversals of long established policies causing more problems before.
And for this fourth reason I do not think that just dropping public education is an achievable goal. However, it would still be beneficial to return power to the parents. One way to do that is with a voucher system. They get brought up from time to time and usually the ones leading the argument are, like in the case of bringing in government funding, not the parents but the educators and government officials. I’m not going to go into great detail on the arguments against vouchers. Most of those arguments bespeak, on examination, a lack of faith in the public schools. If vouchers would lead to a stampede away from public education that would “destroy public schools” perhaps they should look at why they are failing their students so badly that their parents would want to take them out? If that is a legitimate fear, then maybe they need the competition to motivate them to clean house themselves. The kids will be better off for it.
One argument I do want to address. The “First Amendment argument”. I. e. vouchers would allow parents to send their children to religious schools violating “separation of Church and State” (actually “Congress shall make no law respecting establishment of religion” since “Separation of Church and State” is nowhere in the Consitution–it’s from a letter Thomas Jefferson wrote assuring a church that the Federal government would not interfere with them). This is a baseless argument. Consider various government college student aid packages. Those packages tie to the the student, not the school itself. The student can, if he or she chooses, use them at a religious school just as much as at a non-religious institution. All that is required is that the school be properly accredited. Likewise, with the old GI Bill grants. The First Amendment has never been considered an issue with any of these things any more than it has been if someone drawing government assistance should put some of that money in his or her’s church collection plate. The voucher funds the student. If the student (or the student’s parents) choose to use that money in a religious institution, that’s their choice, not the government’s.
A related argument to that, one that has explicitly been made to me, amounts to “But I don’t want my tax dollars to be used to teach values I disagree with.” As it happens, I’m already in that position. Schools, funded by my tax dollars (among others’) is being used to teach values with which I disagree.
If we could get a voucher program in place, I’d put some very basic limitations on how a voucher could be used. It could only be used in an institution that met certain minimum educational standards. It could offer anything beyond those standards that it thought might attract students, or more accurately their parents, to it.
The standards I would call for are very basic indeed: English and math, what used to be called “the three ‘r’s'” (Ironic since two of those, to be “r’s” would have to be misspelled), a basic knowledge of the Constitution–what it actually says; if it wants to go beyond that to interpretation and meaning, that’s at its own choice, but they have to cover what it says–and some basic natural sciences. Now, I’d never want to send my daughter to a school that taught only that minimum but I’m content to let competition and the market deal with the rest. If some schools want to teach communist agitprop as part of their curriculum, in competition with schools teaching “Rah! Rah! America is the best!”, then more power to them.
Because I believe in competition in the “marketplace of ideas” every bit as much as in the marketplace of goods and services.