Radical Thinking about Education

As it becomes increasingly apparent that the United States model of education is broken, some libertarian thinkers have begun challenging fundamental assumptions about the way schooling is organized and delivered. Two new essays trample upon the conventional wisdom.

In “The Costs of Compulsory Education,” published by the Ludwig von Mises Institute, author Aaron Smith questions the value of compulsory-education laws, the bedrock upon which the system of universal public education exists. Tracing the origin of the laws to Martin Luther and the Protestant Reformation, he shows how compulsory education became a weapon of choice for states seeking to destroy troublesome cultures and languages. (Even today, I might add state schools impose their values –secular humanist in some states, religious in others — upon an unwilling public.)

One consequence of compulsion is the stifling of creativity and innovation. “Regulations that mandate the character of instruction only serve to silence demand and prevent entrepreneurship and innovation. It is impossible to know the shape and scope of programs that would come into existence otherwise; churches, civic organizations, and entrepreneurs should be permitted to innovate freely.”

What would become of society if compulsory-education laws were repealed? Parents would have more freedom to determine how their children are educated. Entrepreneurs and philanthropists would create education models never before imagined. Educators would compete for children.

Smith has less to say about what happens to children whose parents are unable or unwilling to educate them. He closes simply by quoting Thomas Jefferson: “It is better to tolerate the rare instance of a parent refusing to let his child be educated, than to shock the common feelings and ideas by the forcible transportation and education of the infant against the will of the father.”

In “How to Run Public Schools in the 21st Century,” Chester E. Finn Jr., with the Hoover Institution, questions the premise that schools are necessarily a responsibility of municipal government and that they should be run by independent school boards. Tracing the main structures of U.S. public education to the 19th century, he, too, laments that education has been so slow to evolve new forms. Writes Finn:

Our inherited structures presuppose a quasi-monopoly over K-12 education — ‘one best system’ that delivers essentially the same instructional package to every child in every neighborhood and that takes little account of individuals differences or preferences, much less the potential of competing providers. In short, the public education system takes for granted that one size does fit all. Wealthy families have always been able to buy their way out of that system via private schools Some middle-class folks have opted to educate their kids at home. But for almost everyone else, the choices were limited — and the system was designed to keep them that way.

Despite the bias toward stasis in the system, new educational forms have emerged — like grass pushing through the playground asphalt. Charter schools. STEM schools. Governor’s schools. Regional vocational schools. Tech prep and early college programs. “All sorts of improvisations and work-arounds have been devised to compensate for the blunt fact that the system itself is hostile to educational diversity, competition and choice,” Finn writes. “As the system continues to push back against these alternatives, it constrains, weakens, or defeats them.”

Finn suggests that states should wield most of the authority and provide most of the money in education, with dollars following kids to the schools of their choice. No longer would a child’s educational opportunities be bound by the school district where he or she lives. With parental choice unleashed, alternatives would blossom. Some schools would be brick and mortar. Some would be virtual. Schools would be allowed to affiliate with like-minded institutions in voluntary school networks so they don’t have to invent everything from scratch or buy it in small batches.

The state’s role would be to ensure that schools’ financial records, staff qualifications and performance are open for public inspection, Finn suggests. Failed schools would lose their licenses to operate. The federal government should stop telling states and schools what to do and focus instead on gathering comparable data about finances and academic achievement.

In summary, the modern American school system is monopolistic, imposes uniformity, discourages innovation and perpetuates failure. Well-intentioned reforms will be subordinated to the interests of the educrats, not the American children. The bureaucratic 19th-century monstrosity needs to be dismantled and rebuilt through trial-and-error and competition around 21st century technologies, managerial principles and proven pedagogies.

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