In the wake of the shootings in Phoenix, Arizona, earlier this year, a bill was proposed in the Arizona legislature that would allow faculty members at universities and community colleges to carry a concealed weapon while working on campus. Naturally, this was a polarizing topic among students and faculty. Had it passed, Arizona would have been the second state to have such a law. The state of Utah already permits college instructors to have concealed weapons on campus.
Across the country in the state of Michigan, there are no guns allowed in the public schools, but one school district is allowing Sikh students to wear a ceremonial religious dagger to school. This time it is parents and teachers who are polarized.
These two incidents come as no surprise to anyone familiar with public education. Disputes between students and schools and between parents and school boards over such issues as appropriate clothing, zero-tolerance policies, freedom of expression, and free exercise of religion are the norm.
But those two incidents also remind us that the problem with public education is that it is public education.
Most controversies about what weapons, drugs, and electronic devices can be brought to school; whether baggy pants, short skirts, or shirts with messages on them can be worn to school; and whether prayer should be allowed in classrooms and at assemblies and football games disappear when education is left up to the free market instead of the government.
The same is true for the teaching of evolution, climate change, patriotism, religion, sex education, and any other controversial subject. In fact, every conceivable issue related to education large and small — from whether military recruiters will be allowed on campus to graduation requirements to what is served for lunch — can be solved when education is left up to the free market instead of the government.
There are generally three layers of government when it comes to K-12 education (federal, state, and local) and two layers of government when it comes to college education (federal and state). The biggest problem with education at all levels, but one that can easily and quickly be solved, is the elimination of federal regulation, control, and funding of public education.
Because the Constitution is silent not only on those subjects, but on the subject of education itself, it is a no-brainer that all Americans — regardless of their political affiliation — should be united on the fact that federal involvement in education in any way is plainly unconstitutional. Some people may want the federal government to have total and complete control over education, others may want the federal government to have nothing to do with education, and still others may want something in between. But clearly, there is nothing in the Constitution that authorizes the federal government to be involved in any way, shape, or form with the education of anyone.
That means that on the federal level there should be no Pell Grants, student loans, research grants, teacher-education requirements, teacher-certification standards, Title IX mandates, school-lunch programs, Head Start funding, bilingual-education mandates, forced busing to achieve racial desegregation, diversity mandates, presidential visits to schools, standardized-testing requirements, special-education mandates, math and science initiatives, directives such as the No Child Left Behind Act, or Race to the Top funds; and, of course, no Department of Education.
Although Republicans in Congress may complain about some of those things, they are solidly behind federal funding and control of education. It has been 30 years since the Republicans have seriously talked about abolishing the Department of Education. And the last time they had total control of the government — for more than four years during the George W. Bush presidency — they greatly expanded the size and scope of the department.
Libertarians who advocate educational vouchers so that parents can send their children to the school of their choice — including private schools — are being very inconsistent. If it is not the business of government to fund public schools, then it is certainly not the business of government to fund private schools.
Eliminating public education
One reason that the elimination of federal involvement in education would not be so very difficult, especially when it comes to K-12 education, is that local public schools generally receive less than 10 percent of their funding from the federal government.
On the state and local level, the arguments against public education must be limited to the philosophical and the practical, because all state constitutions have provisions for the establishment and maintenance of a public-education system at the primary, secondary, and college levels. It all comes down to the foundational purpose of government and the extent of its role in society. Thus, the real issue is not how government should establish, reform, improve, regulate, or fund public education, but whether the government should do those things in the first place.
That means that at the state and local level there should be no mandatory-attendance laws; property taxes to pay for public schools; regulation, monitoring, or control of private or home schools; and no public-school teachers — all for the simple reason that there should be no public schools.
Public schools should at the very least be optional. That is, if the states are to have public schools, then they should be like the post office or any government activity that competes with the private sector: Those who use the product or service should have to pay for it; those who don’t, should not have to.
Why should people with no children have to pay for the education of other people’s children? Why should people who pay to send their children to private schools have to also pay to educate the children of others? But more important, why shouldn’t parents — who are responsible for their children’s medical care, clothing, food and drink, housing, religious training, transportation, recreation, et cetera — not also have the responsibility for educating their children?
That does not mean that everyone should home-school his children. Even now, with public funding of education, those parents who choose not to send their children to a public school have a wide variety of options. The educational opportunities that would exist under a real free market for education are limitless. Not only would there be for-profit and non-profit schools, religious and secular schools, vocational and college-prep schools, there would also be schools that cater to a particular religion, political viewpoint, ethnic group, sex, socio-economic status, nationality, ethic, level of intelligence, or worldview.
Charities, business partnerships, and private voucher plans would certainly exist to help educate poor and special-needs children — just as they exist now under the present system.
With a free market for education, some schools would allow prayer; others would forbid it. Some schools would permit guns; others would outlaw even the representation of a gun. Some schools would teach creation; others would teach evolution. Some schools would have a liberal dress code; others would require uniforms. Some schools would offer sex education; others would have an abstinence program.
Why, then, do so many Americans reject educational freedom? Two reasons are the powerful teachers’ unions and generations of Americans that have come to expect free public education, at least at the K-12 level. The distrust that many Americans have of government has, unfortunately, not generally included public education. But it should never be forgotten that public education is nothing more than government education.
The problem with public education is a simple one; it is the fact that it is public education.
Originally published at The Future of Freedom Foundation on February 9, 2012.