Why Johnny Still Can't Read


The Case against Government Schools, by Frank E. Fortkamp, Westlake Village, Calif.: American Media, 1979, 149 pp., $4.95 (paper).

Legislated Learning: The Bureaucratization of the American Classroom, by Arthur E. Wise, Los Angeles and Berkeley: University of California Press, 1979, 220 pp., $10.95.

For many critics of the American public school system, the idea of educational freedom—that is, the separation of school and State—is an idea whose time is fast approaching, if it hasn't already arrived. There is a growing recognition that the many problems of public education are not only insoluble but will multiply and worsen in the coming years. There is also the recognition that, as public education falls more and more under the control of a centralized federal bureaucracy, it will become increasingly incompatible with the ideals of a free society. In The Case against Government Schools, Dr. Frank Fortkamp offers a refreshing alternative to the present system which he calls FEE: Free Enterprise Education.

Fortkamp, a former high school principal with a doctorate in educational administration, knows the government school system from the inside. He minces no words about it. "American Public Education," he writes, "primarily exists to provide work for incompetents thinly disguised as 'teachers' and 'educational administrators.'…They, in fact, very often earn their livings by 'problem solving' the crises they themselves perpetuate in order to keep their troubleshooting jobs intact. Only a fool is his own physician." Since he is convinced that the present system cannot correct itself and can only get worse, he advocates the complete privatization of education in America and a complete ban on taxation for education. "If education became another commodity competing in the open marketplace," he writes, "the quality of teaching and the effectiveness of administration would change drastically."

Fortkamp outlines the many benefits that Americans would reap if they adopted the "constitutional principle of separation of school and state." There would be healthy competition for the consumer's educational dollar, a great variety of schools big and small, tutoring services of all sorts, great freedom of choice for parents, and the elimination of a tremendous tax burden.

It all makes a lot of sense. But how do you bring it about in a country where most people assume that education is a legitimate and desirable function of government? By making people aware that the problems of public education are caused by the very intrusion of government in an area where government really doesn't belong. Dr. Fortkamp argues this quite persuasively, in a way that anyone can understand.

Of course, the first question skeptics will ask is what would happen to the poor if all education were privatized. Fortkamp responds by pointing out that the poor are the primary victims of the present incompetent government system. They make up in large part the army of functional illiterates being turned out by our public schools. "The precise evil of the Public Education System in terms of the poor and minorities," he argues, "is that the system equips children to live in a welfare state when, in fact, they will have to function in a capitalist society." He argues that they would be the biggest gainers from Free Enterprise Education. And he is probably right.

Fortkamp has done more than simply write a book about the benefits of educational freedom. He has also formed an organization to promote the implementation of his ideas (Association for the Advancement of Free Enterprise Education, 115 Haight Street, Suite 2, San Francisco, CA 94102).

Arthur E. Wise, author of Legislated Learning, is the social scientist whose earlier book, Rich Schools, Poor Schools: The Promise of Equal Educational Opportunity, was in large measure responsible for the New Jersey Supreme Court's 1972 ruling in Robinson v. Cahill, which mandated equity in school expenditures so that all public schools could provide the same educational opportunities for all the state's children regardless of a school's location. And now that this principle of financial equity has been accepted nationwide by public school bureaucrats, legislatures have shifted their attention to the more difficult area of educational content.

It's easy enough to slice the money pie so that each school gets its equitable share. But how do you determine what an "equal educational opportunity" is? You first have to define "educational opportunity." And once you do that you have to legislate it into existence. Which is what is happening all over the country as state lawmakers mandate educational achievement through minimum competency requirements and other such policies to ensure that high school graduates can read, write, and do simple math. The result, according to Wise, is the "bureaucratization of the American classroom."

So what else is new? "Success in solving problems of equity," Wise writes, "is encouraging policy makers and those who appeal to them to try to solve problems of productivity as well.…Productivity questions are intrinsically more difficult than equity questions because they arise not out of a political impasse but from a fundamental lack of knowledge about how to teach." What an admission of failure! The State has had a virtual monopoly on teacher training for over a hundred years and it still doesn't know how to teach! No wonder the nation is becoming illiterate. And no wonder the lawmakers are mandating that public school teachers teach the basics. But what is mind-boggling is that laws should be needed at all requiring that teachers do the job they've supposedly been hired to do.

Wise's assumption that there is "a fundamental lack of knowledge about how to teach" is symptomatic of the narrow vision characteristic of so many of these social scientists. Hasn't he ever heard of Rudolph Flesch or a dozen other critics of modern pedagogy? The simple fact is there is no lack of knowledge about how to teach the basics. But there is a tremendous resistance among professors of education in recognizing that knowledge. I wrote of this at length in my own study of the reading instruction problem, The New Illiterates, published in 1973. But the establishment social scientist lives in the narrow, rigid world of public agencies where knowledge is not recognized unless it is generated within the fraternity and within a conformist range of scholarship. To do otherwise is to invite ostracism.

Wise accepts State education unquestioningly. His concern is with the future shape that bureaucratization will take. He is afraid that the trend toward legislated learning will tend to centralize the control of educational policy in the hands of the central government. He thinks that this will "cast the welfare of the individual as subordinate to the welfare of the state." Congratulations. It's nice to know that even some establishment insiders are beginning to recognize the inevitable negative consequences of statism.

Samuel Blumenfeld is a free-lance writer and the author of several books on education.