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National Public Radio can’t stop talking about its new poll on
education, which purports to discover two points. First, while people
are happy with their own schools, they rate the nation’s public schools
very poorly. Second, people say they want better schools and are willing
to pay for them. The NPR conclusion is unsurprising: pour more dough
into the public schools, through higher taxes.

They’re dreaming. The poll could actually indicate the opposite.
First, people are unwilling to admit to pollsters the extreme failures
of institutions where they have entrusted their children, but at the
same time, they intuitively understand that public schools are no great
shakes anywhere. Second, people’s willingness to “pay more” for their
child’s education is a case for privatizing the whole system, not
raising taxes.

The NPR survey is more interesting for the fact that it was
commissioned, and that state radio is making a big deal out of it. The
truth is that the champions of public schools are panicked. They sense
that public schools are in a meltdown, and they’re right.

The evidence is all around. A new study of Department of Education
data by two California researchers shows that one in four students now
attend non-traditional schools. Private schools are in a boom phase, and
home schooling hasn’t been this popular since the 19th century.
Increasingly, when people have other options, they take their children
out.

Groups like Exodus 2000 and the
Separation of School and State Alliance
are urging a no-compromise position. They don’t suggest reform or
parental activism to improve the schools. They advocate that all
concerned parents immediately withdraw their kids from the public
schools, and this position is gaining adherents all over the country.

After Columbine, it should be clear that no child can be assured of
safety in the public schools. Indeed, the morally barren curriculum
itself contributes to the rise of public-school violence. Schools can’t
kick out violence-prone kids for fear of civil-rights lawsuits, so they
compensate
by clamping down on any signs of eccentricity or individualism.

Then there’s the continually dumbed-down curriculum. Unless your
child manages to finagle his way into one of the dwindling number of
“gifted and talented” programs, he is stuck in a plan geared toward the
lowest common denominator. The best measure of how well public schools
are doing is to observe the overflowing remedial classes at public
universities all across the country.

The reductio ad absurdum is George W. Bush’s Texas public education
program. After the most recent round of reforms, the schools do nothing
but drill the kids to pass the bare-bones standardized test that is the
ticket to the next grade. The experts are wowed at the progress in
border towns and inner cities. But what about everyone else? They spend
half the year marking time.

Teachers are permitted no creativity, administrators have no options,
and parents have no input. Students are treated not as individuals but
as collective test takers. Did you pass or fail? That is the only
question. It’s a brutal system only tolerated because it makes the
government look good.

Texas is no better or worse than anywhere else, so who’s to blame for
the rotten state of American public education? Parents blame the
teachers who blame the administrators who blame the politicians who
blame the voters. But think about it: is there any service provided by
the government that is not a failure?

The most frustrating aspects of life today are all connected with
government service: whether it’s the inefficiencies of public utilities
and the post office, the waste and profligacy of the welfare and warfare
state, or the regulatory frustrations associated with running a
business. The government can’t do anything right, so there’s no reason
to expect government schools, especially those controlled by a central
political elite, to be an exception.

The problem is especially insidious with schools because they seek to
shape the thinking patterns and lives of the young. As Murray N.
Rothbard shows in his classic monograph, “Education: Free and
Compulsory,”
public
education, particularly compulsory public education, began as an attempt
to indoctrinate the citizenry with loyalty to the regime.

In ancient Sparta, the entire city was organized on the model of a
military camp, with the young seized from their parents and
indoctrinated into total obedience. The idea was dropped after Europe
was Christianized, but picked up again after the Reformation, when
Martin Luther called for the state “to compel the people to send their
children to school” in order to inculcate his new approach to religion.

Ever since, the state has used the schools to promote one or another
variety of the prevailing civic religion. This was true for Prussia,
Japan, France, England, and, especially, the United States, although
compulsory attendance laws were unheard of here until the mid-19th
century. Originally, the view of Thomas Jefferson prevailed: “It is
better to tolerate the rare instance of a parent refusing to let his
child be educated, than to shock the common feelings and ideas by the
forcible transportation and education of the infant against the will of
the father.”

By 1900, government was forcing kids into its indoctrination centers.
This was due less to the influence of John Dewey, as is commonly
thought, than the ideological triumph of socialists Frances Wright and
Robert Dale Owen. It was they who first on American soil called for
“national, rational,
republican education; free for all at the expense of all; conducted
under the guardianship of the State, and for the honor, the happiness,
the virtue, the salvation of the State.”

As public confidence in government continues, thankfully, its
free-fall, people are drifting away from conventional public schools
into any alternative they can find. But it’s going to take far more than
vouchers, charter schools, and the like, to solve our problems with
education. Indeed, these are just gimmicks designed to prolong
government control.

The model we need to restore is that of the old Europe and the old
America: government should have no role whatsoever in education, neither
financing nor coercing attendance, nor exercising control. Not only
would that save trillions in tax dollars; it would spark a revival in
genuine learning,
which has nothing to do with loyalty to the band of thieves in D.C.

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