The shootings at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado, are still reverberating—accentuating some of the enormous problems with public education.
American high schools are plagued with low academic standards, moral relativism, political correctness, student apathy, and social permissiveness. All of this has led to a deterioration in students’ commitment to learning, their sense of direction, even their willingness to succeed.
The root cause of these problems may be endemic in the structure of public schooling itself. If the public school is the “medium,” then its message is this: First, an insistence on compulsory attendance laws that involve a basic denial of parental and student choice and consent by making use of monopoly and coercion. Second, a push for compulsory public funding at the expense of local and, worse, parental control. Third, a toleration and support of moral relativism or “permissiveness.”
Thus does government schooling, a $300-billion-a-year Leviathan, lumber on, breeding academic lethargy and confusion along with student frustration and aggression. Compare this to private and parochial schools, all based on choice and consent and on the teaching, for the most part, of positive values. In private schools, rage is rare and academic discipline and excellence are common. Can you imagine two students at, say, a St. Joseph’s Academy talking up “big trouble at school next week”?
Parental and student consent—its presence or absence—is crucial. John Stuart Mill saw schools “on the voluntary principle” as naturally involving individual consent and wholehearted participation. The anticompetitive principle that public schools are based on—funded through taxes as they are—can creep into the classroom, where a statist or generally pro-government view can color the teaching. Wasn’t Mill on to something when he said: “A general state education is a mere contrivance for molding people to be exactly like one another. . . . It establishes a despotism over the mind”?
So if monopoly of public funding and denial of choice and consent sum up America’s public school impasse, what should we do?
One short-term answer is just to throw more money at the whole school problem. In 1999, congressional Republicans, stung by President Clinton’s initiative calling for 100,000 new teachers and smaller classes, sought a $40 billion increase in federal education spending over the next five years. Said Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison of Texas, fresh from a Republican caucus: “We want to get into helping the states.” Helping the states—or helping the students? Or, more likely, helping the GOP politically? In any event, is more money really the answer?
According to an American Legislative Exchange Council study in 1998 on schooling costs, state by state, New Jersey led the nation in the 1996-97 school year, spending an average of $10,975 per student. Yet it ranked 39th among states in average SAT scores in 1998. Washington, D.C., had the nation’s second-highest per student expenses ($10,384), and it ranked 50th in average SAT scores.
At the same time, Minnesota spent much less, averaging $6,345 per student, but ranked third in average SAT scores. Iowa did better yet, spending an average of $6,056 per student, and coming in first on SAT scores.
A Cato Institute study put average tuition for all K-12 private schools, except parochial, in the 1994-95 school year at $3,II6-less than half of the $6,857 cost per pupil in the average public school. Yet private schools score higher SAT scores — granted, with smaller, more selected student bodies, including those with inner-city schoolchildren. Even with that caveat, however, any positive correlation between public school spending and public school results is weak to nonexistent.
A better—if still short-term—answer to America’s school problem would be private scholarships such as those established by Wall Street financier Theodore J. Forstmann and John Walton of the Wal-Mart family. In 1998-99, the Forstmann-Walton team raised $170 million for a scholarship fund. Forstmann said a flood of 1.2 million applications —that’s almost one for every 50 American schoolchildren —was “a cry from the heart” for access to the scant 40,000 computer-allocated scholarship slots at private and parochial schools. He noted that, even though the means-tested applicants’ families had low incomes, they were still willing to pass up “free” public education and pay up to $1,000 a year.
But such scholarships, though welcome, are limited tools to promote widespread consent, renew traditional values, and encourage parent-student-teacher cooperation and enthusiasm.
The only true solution is far more radical. Since the central problems of public schooling are due to its negation of much parental and student choice through compulsory attendance laws and the monopoly of public funding without (by and large) taxpayer consent, we must break that compulsion and monopoly. For if separation of church and state makes sense—and I believe it does—then why not face the challenge of separation of school and state?
Ludwig von Mises said it well in his 1929 book Liberalism:
The school is a political prize of the highest importance. It cannot be deprived of its political character as long as it remains a public and compulsory institution. There is, in fact, only one solution: the state, the laws, must not in any way concern themselves with schooling or education. Public funds must not be used for such purposes. The rearing and instruction of youth must be left entirely to parents and to private associations and institutions.