The recent elections offer an opportunity to reflect on what freedom in education means and why it is a value.
Let’s start with some results. At the state level, voters rejected Prop. 119, which aimed to increase taxes on marijuana to fund “out-of-school learning opportunities” (such as tutoring) as directed by a “Learning Authority Board.” Those opposed made strange bedfellows. The left argued that this money was not sufficiently controlled by the education establishment. I, on the other hand, argued that education should not rely on “sin” taxes and that the money was too bound in bureaucratic control.
In Colorado as elsewhere, school board races were consumed by debates over mask mandates and Critical Race Theory (CRT), which arguably influences how schools teach America’s history of racial conflict. To simplify the debate, generally conservatives were against mandates and CRT while Progressives were for mandates and dismissive of complaints about CRT. Always simmering in the background are broader debates over school choice.
Conservatives did well in Douglas County. Christy Williams of the conservative Kids First slate told Colorado Community Media, “We want to put the parents in charge of their kids’ education.” Meanwhile, union-supported candidates did well in Denver and Jefferson County, while “results were split” in Aurora and Mesa County, Marianne Goodland reports. Complete Colorado’s Sherrie Peif points out that Mesa County nevertheless flipped to a conservative majority and that conservatives did well in various other districts.
Elsewhere, education became a hot-button in the governor’s race in Virginia. After long trailing in the polls, Republican Glenn Youngkin pulled off a victory after declaring, “I believe parents should be in charge of their kids’ education.” By contrast, in a debate, Democrat Terry McAuliffe said in the context of sexually-explicit materials, “I don’t think parents should be telling schools what they should teach.”
Political control of education
So what should we make of all this? As I routinely point out, many people act surprised when government-run schools turn out to be political. But how could it be otherwise? Government forces people to fund public schools, whether or not they send their children to those schools, and even if they don’t have children. As a consequence, many parents have insufficient funds left over to enroll their children in market schools or to homeschool. And many people forced to pay the bills inevitably disagree with aspects of what schools teach.
Contra the Gazette’s declaration that “parents take back their schools,” it is not the case that, with conservative victories, parents generally now are in charge of their children’s education. Rather, certain parents have more say and other parents have less say. That is necessarily the case when we vote on political control of education. In the Douglas county school board races, every losing candidate (except a minor-party one) got over 40% of the vote. I doubt the parents who voted for the losing candidates now feel especially empowered. Not all parents support conservative educational aims.
True, conservatives in Colorado are much more likely to support charter schools and, potentially, voucher programs. In a real sense such programs offer parents who take advantage of them substantially more choice in educating their children. But people who oppose charter schools and tax-funded vouchers still are forced to help finance them wherever they exist. Where is their freedom of choice?
And even parents who use such programs do not have that much additional choice, relative to a genuinely free market. Imagine if government forced everyone to buy groceries through taxes, ran “public” grocery stores, and then allowed a few people to set up tax-funded “charter” grocery stores with slightly different selections. That’s the level of “freedom” we’re talking about when it comes to education.
Of course, parents can choose not to take advantage of the educational programs that they are forced to help finance. They can spend additional funds on a private school or on homeschooling. Real freedom would mean letting people spend their educational dollars as they want. (A caveat: Through an online “options” program, I and some other homeschoolers are able to recoup a fraction of our educational dollars, albeit with strings attached.)
A government monopoly
Maybe it’s time to have a more fundamental conversation about what real freedom in education would look like.
Today, most people accept as unquestioned orthodoxy that people have a right to “free” (taxpayer-funded) K–12 education. These days many claim people have a right to “free” pre-K through college education. Colorado’s Constitution states (Article IX, Section 2), “The general assembly shall, as soon as practicable, provide for the establishment and maintenance of a thorough and uniform system of free public schools throughout the state, wherein all residents of the state, between the ages of six and twenty-one years, may be educated gratuitously . . . at least three months in each year.”
The fundamental question is whether government ought to be educating children, even at the cost of perpetual political strife and of forcing people to finance the propagation of ideas with which they disagree. I see two main arguments that it should, one economic, the other cultural.
The economic claim is that a broadly educated populace benefits us all, that education is a public good, so everyone should help finance it, even under threat of legal penalties. Without taxes, many people would free-ride on the efforts of others to fund education.
The premise that we all benefit from an educated populace is true. But that does not support the conclusion that government therefore should operate free K–12 schools. Primarily, the benefits of education accrue to the child being educated and therefore also to that child’s parents. Hence, absent government-funded education, almost everyone would willingly pay to educate their children. Indeed, many people, if they had control over their resources, would pay for better-quality education for their children than what government now provides.
At most, the public-goods argument justifies some subsidies for education, especially for the less-well-off. As the government provides food stamps, so it could provide tutoring stamps, perhaps called the Supplemental Education Assistance Program. (We can argue about which level of government should fund this; I’d favor a state over a federal program.) Or, if we want to talk about something like a guaranteed income, government could just subsidize the less-well-off with the assumption that families would spend some of those funds on education. (Parents have a moral and legal obligation to care for their children, which in today’s world entails providing them with a basic education.)
The stronger argument for government running K–12 schools is that uniform, politically-controlled education promotes cultural cohesion. It is almost impossible not to burst out laughing at that claim, giving how culturally divisive public schools are and always have been, but let’s consider it seriously. The basic idea is that putting kids of all backgrounds together, and teaching them all (roughly) the same things, promotes social understanding and unity. The idea is that the public schools produce Americans.
Most people, though, think that the public schools produce good Americans only if their ideological camp controls the public schools. According to Progressives, conservatives who say that they oppose CRT really are trying to purge the schools of accurate history of racial oppression. They say school choice is racist. Meanwhile, according to conservatives, the Progressive education establishment seeks to secularize and sexualize children; to make them hyperaware of race; and to hate American ideals, institutions, and capitalism.
But maybe public schools, for the most part, really aren’t that divisive and really do promote a great deal of cultural unity. That’s plausible. But it’s not plausible that public schools do an especially good job of this relative to the free-market alternative.
A free market in education
Sure, if they had full control of their educational dollars, lots of Progressive parents would send their children to schools that emphasize social justice, gender diversity, environmentalism, and America’s historical and ongoing sins. And lots of conservative parents would send their children to schools that venerate America’s Founders, bring religion into the classroom, and promote traditional values. Most of us, though, would send our children to schools to—and I know this is a wild idea—be educated, rather than to be indoctrinated by Progressives or conservatives.
For the most part, free-market schools would promote American cultural unity about as well, and probably better, than the public schools. Insofar as they better-promoted critical thinking and the acquisition of useful knowledge, as I think they usually would, they would help foster better citizens. Knowledgeable, reasonably critical people are far less likely to fall for the sort of dangerous conspiracy mongering now rampant in much of our society.
Regardless, schools hardly are the only or even the most important conveyors of American culture. Families, churches, nonprofits, homeschool co-ops, businesses, pop cultural artifacts (consider the Marvel films), and social networks of all kinds help to promote a common, albeit a highly diverse, American experience.
Anyway, there is no value in us all being the same or all having the same ideas. What is distinctly American, as manifest in our Declaration of Independence, is the concept of individual rights. We each have the freedom to pursue our own happiness as we conceive it, as consistent with the rights of others. So in an important sense what unites us as Americans sharing a common culture is precisely the freedom to find our own path and to follow our own star. Government-run schools, with their stifling uniformity, their incessant promotion of political battles for ideological control, and their coercive funding, deeply undermine a genuinely American culture.
Support for public schools is driven largely by the fear that, left to their own devices, parents will miseducate their children. I concede that, in a liberal free-market system, many parents would do so, just as many parents raise their kids on junk food and junk TV. But at least the harm they could do is limited. The far greater threat is a malignant state controlling education.
For the most part, parents love their children, want the best for them, know them better than any politician or bureaucrat ever could, and have sense enough to do right by them. Sure, parents can screw up, but so can politicians and bureaucrats.
We should consider drawing up a peace settlement to end the perpetual political battles over the schools. That would require that we no longer take for granted the premise that government should control schools.
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