"The school systems of America are the single largest state agency for the deprivation of rights, starting at an early age and on a captive audience."
—Helen Baker, "Crack in Liberty Bell: Compulsory Education," Civil Liberties (1972)
"The cost of government is going up, but the public is asking us to take less. We have to say to the public, 'This is a service [schools] you are going to have to pay for.'"
—Diane Watson, Member of Los Angeles City Board of Education commenting on the Board's vote to increase salary of six school administrators to a range of $51,000 to $58,842, November 1, 1976
Public schools in the rural, blue collar community of Eagle Point, Oregon have been closed since October 15 because voters defeated a proposed $2.6 million property tax levy. Led by a protest group calling for a tax revolt, Eagle Point voters have turned down five attempts to pass a levy to keep the schools open. Tax levies in two other Oregon districts, La Grande and South Lane, were voted down on November 2, and it appears that schools in these districts will also be forced to close.
Education is obviously of fundamental importance and most Americans strongly support the concept of universal public schooling financed by taxes. Nonetheless, in recent elections a majority of school bond issues has been voted down, and the day is past where public school systems can simply assume that voters will approve any school tax measure that is put to them.
Bruce Bartlett's article on voluntary education in this month's REASON discusses trends working against tax-supported schooling, including voters' hostility to increased taxes in general and the shift in age structure to the point where most taxpayers will not have school-age children, so will not go out of their way to support higher school taxes. The Eagle Point experience presents a valuable opportunity to assess the concept of public schooling in America and to consider innovative alternative approaches.
There is a widespread dissatisfaction with public schools which stems not from philosophical arguments favoring free choice and competition but from strong advocates of tax financed schools. The costs of public schools are continually rising, at the same time that classroom enrollment is shrinking and educational quality has been declining. Many public schools are experiencing grave problems with violence, vandalism, and strikes by teachers' unions. Too, public schools are under attack for perpetual racial segregation and for eliminating classroom prayer.
The performance of public schools in the inner city is so wretched that large numbers of students do not learn basic skills, such as reading and writing. Although it is commonly asserted that public schools are necessary to educate the poor, the term "twelve-year sentence" has been aptly used to describe the public schools as analogous to a huge prison system which incarcerates the young. Perhaps the strongest case to maintain the present system is the ironic argument that the poor intentionally should be impeded and repressed by inferior schooling. It is hard to visualize a system of schooling that would function any worse for the poor than the system we have today.
We urge radical educational reform as a top priority for those interested in personal liberty and in the goal of an educated populace. The program we advocate calls for the complete removal of government from the classroom.
Most Americans would instinctively resist any attempt to involve the government in the area of freedom of thought or belief. As contrasted with contrary experiences in other countries, in America it is generally considered wrong for the government to aid or regulate the press or the church. The idea of a state-controlled press is anathema to those who value freedom, yet Americans have become conditioned to granting government the far greater power of controlling the curriculum of schools. In his famous essay, On Liberty, John Stuart Mill warned that "[a] general state education is a mere contrivance for molding people…[in a manner] which pleases the predominant power in the government." It is of interest that, in addition to the noble aspirations of some early backers of public education, there were also other less benevolent motives. As noted by Murray Rothbard in his insightful discussion of education in For a New Liberty, "From the beginning of American history, the desire to mould, instruct and render obedient the mass of the population was the major impetus behind the drive toward public schooling." Indeed, one major force which, in the early 1920s, sought to compel all children to attend public schools was the Ku Klux Klan, which sought to "Americanize" Catholic and immigrant children by outlawing private schools.
Beyond the historical motives underlying the adoption of compulsory public schooling, it is worthwhile to consider why those who value a free market system to produce and distribute goods and services should support a socialized school system. If government were capable of handling the critical function of schooling, why shouldn't the government be entrusted to provide other necessaries as well? Can a convincing case be made in support of free competition when most citizens are taught in a school financed by taxes, and where all the teachers are employees of the state? One can recognize that there are devoted and capable teachers in public schools today, yet feel apprehensive about the impact on students of attempting to teach the virtues of personal liberty in a nonprofit institution which relies on coercion for its very existence.
If education is truly valued, why do we allow the state to become involved? The answer is not simply that we need public schools for the poor, because public schools are maintained in wealthy communities as well. How much, for example, would you expect the rate of literacy to decline in a community like Beverly Hills, California if all schools were private?
Most significantly, if the concern is for the poor, why single out schooling for a nationalized system of distribution? Compare the need for food, or shelter, or clothing—all of which are required for poor children, whether they go to school or not. How many would favor setting up a comprehensive government organization to provide these necessaries in the manner used for schooling? Or shouldn't a concern for the poor be handled by programs that are tailored to assist the poor, rather than restructure the entire system for everyone? If the public school model were used for food, we might expect to find such institutions as the Los Angeles Unified Supermarket District, with vast city-wide operations. The Board of Food would impose taxes on all residents to finance the government supermarkets, and citizens would be required to pay even if they grow their own food or buy it at a private market. Wealthy families with many children would be subsidized by poor people with no children. All residents would be required to shop at their assigned neighborhood market—unless they opted to shop at a private market, or were selected to be bussed to an outlying government market to achieve racial balance among the district's shoppers.
In view of the disastrous performance of public schools, it seems fair to suggest that had the government undertaken to nationalize the markets as it has done with schools, it is likely that there would be widespread starvation. On the other hand, the possibilities of obtaining high-quality schools if the government kept its hands off is suggested by the experience with supermarkets. In purchasing food, the consumer may elect to shop at a wide selection of stores, without getting a transfer permit from the government, and without being forced to finance a poor-quality store. How can a monopolistic public school system benefit the consumer any more than a socialized system of markets?
The Eagle Point public school closure can have a far-reaching impact if it influences Americans to evaluate the alternatives to public schools and points the way towards a voluntary system.