It is popular to criticize public education today—but only if one suggests reform of the current system. It is unacceptable to suggest that there is something wrong with the system itself. Unfortunately, attempts at reform fail to address the central problem of public schooling—that government should not be involved in education in the first place.
Here are four reasons why government involvement in education (a.k.a public schools) is destructive and why government should get out of the education business entirely.
(1) Public schools are coercive.
Public education was only able to become the force it is today because the government instituted compulsory attendance and compulsory taxation laws. In other words, public schools take your children, and then they take your money to pay for their schooling. Thankfully, parents in every U.S. state have the legal right to opt out of public schools. But parents who opt out will still have to pay for public schools through local, state, and federal taxes. This is true also for people whose children are out of high school or who have no children at all. Whether you want the service or not, you still have to pay for it. This is tantamount to theft.
It is no surprise then that the majority of Americans choose to send their children to a local public school. The penalty for opting out is double-tuition, as parents have to pay for private schooling on top of taxes for public schools. This is a penalty many parents are unwilling to pay. But for many poor families, this is a penalty they are unable to pay. And sadly, poor families often live in the worst school districts. Many of them would love alternatives to the local public school, but the alternatives are not financially feasible.
(2) Public schools undermine the family.
Parents have authority over their children and therefore have the right to choose the best educational option for them. Schools in this sense are an extension of parental authority. However, America’s coercive public school system interferes with this authority. Instead of leaving educational decisions to parents (who know their children best), such decisions are left to government bureaucrats. This has led to decreased parental responsibility and increased dependency on government.
Ironically, public schools were supposed to offer a solution to the very problem of parental irresponsibility. One of the arguments advanced in favor of America’s public school system when it first began in the mid-1800s was that some parents were too negligent to make educational decisions for their children. This charge was particularly aimed at the poor, who (so it was thought) could not or would not provide proper education for their children. Oddly enough, this line of reasoning was used to justify the government providing education not only for the poor, but for all citizens. In this way, the government became a sort of paternal figure for all of society.
The state has thus usurped the educational role that rightfully belongs to parents. Instead of parents training their children in the home and in voluntary private schools, the majority of parents today leave all education to the “professionals” at the public schools. But the state is no substitute for an actual father and mother. The state system has thus weakened the family unit by interfering with parental responsibilities. This has created more problems that the state has in turn sought to solve by further state intervention. The logic of government education has been extended so that progressives now consistently advocate for a complete nanny state—government daycare, government lunches, government healthcare, and government education from pre-school through college.
(3) Public schools monopolize the market.
The coercive nature of public education has also created a near monopoly in education. Sure, private schools still exist. But they are at a significant competitive disadvantage. It is ironic that there have been many outcries throughout American history against supposed “monopolies,” yet there have been few voices objecting to the actual monopoly found in the public school system. But as is true of all monopolies, the lack of competition decreases both the efficiency and quality of the schools.
Schools are a business, and education is a service. But when a business does not have to compete for its very life, it loses incentive to cut costs and provide its service for the lowest price. And when the service is involuntary, it diminishes the consumer’s self-interest and the producer’s responsibility to please the customer. So while public schools have prices, there is no consumer-feedback mechanism. Taxpayers have little say in how much they pay for the schools, and they cannot leave and take their money elsewhere (not without moving).
It should therefore be no surprise that public school budgets become bloated. Just look at America’s expenditure in the last 50 years. When adjusted for inflation, per pupil spending in American public schools has more than doubled since 1970. Teachers unions and the leftist media continue to dupe the public by constantly declaring that the solution to every problem is more money. This would never happen in the free market. But when there are no direct tuition hikes, few will object to new sports facilities, an excessive number of administrative positions, and hefty salaries.
Not surprisingly, most of the opposition to any form of privatization comes from teachers unions and their political allies. Teachers unions do not like privatization because it creates competition, which in turn means teachers have to work harder for lower pay and the best teachers get paid the most. Unions prefer a pay scale based on experience rather than performance, guaranteeing increased pay with no incentive to work hard. Teachers unions also desire to limit competition by restricting the pool of available teachers. This is the real reason why public schools require teacher certification, which can only be obtained with a degree from a university’s “college of education” (there are some exceptions). This has created a guild that keeps even some of the most qualified individuals from teaching in the public schools, including those with a Master’s or PhD. Not only does this restrict competition, but it also keeps out bright teachers who have not been indoctrinated by the progressive colleges of education.
(4) Public schools promote the growth of the state.
The coercive and monopolistic nature of public education makes it the perfect tool for statist propaganda. The children currently in schools will one day be leaders and voters in society. Thus it can be said that "he who controls the schools controls the future." And in the case of government schools, they have indoctrinated generations of Americans into a statist worldview. Contrary to popular belief, education is not a neutral endeavor. There are different perspectives on subjects like history and economics. And it just so happens that American public schools tend to slant the curriculum in favor of the state. Why are Keynesian economics, egalitarian social ideals, and American militarism so popular today? Because those are the doctrines that public schools and universities have taught to the majority of Americans.
Furthermore, public schools are intolerant. Individualism poses a threat to the state, so public schools seek to crush freedom and individualism in favor of conformity. Is it any wonder that government schools at every level are some of the least diverse places of opinion? In seeking to educate students from a variety of backgrounds and beliefs, government schools have sought to teach a non-philosophical and non-religious worldview. But in doing so, the schools have actually forced a leftist and secular worldview on students. The best example of this is found in the public schools’ embrace of Darwinian evolution. Darwinism has been adopted as official state doctrine and other views legally barred, in spite of the fact that many American families object to this controversial view. In other words, the state is forcing its perspective on the populace. But this is not an accident. Religious persons adhere to an authority higher than the state, and this poses a threat. Government schools therefore seek to squash religious opinion and force on students a worldview that is more conducive towards statism.
It is a sad irony that many so-called proponents of the free market would never even suggest privatizing America’s public school system. They despise the calls for socialistic reform (such as tuition-free college), yet they overlook the fact that the state owns the means of production in education—the very definition of socialism. The government uses coercion to create a monopolized system that further aids the growth of the state. And in pursuit of this goal, the school system undermines competing authorities, including parents and the church.
It should come as no surprise that such a socialist school system has been nothing short of a disaster. Even proponents of the system recognize some of its problems, many of which are magnified in the poorer schools—low test scores, illiteracy, dropouts, violence, teen pregnancy, bankrupt districts, etc. Understandably, there are calls for reform. But attempts at reform only deal with the symptoms of the underlying problem of government control. If Americans want a genuine solution, we must address the root problem by getting government out of the education business.