Time to decentralize our government school system
By Beth Cody, Writers’ Group member
Iowa City Press-Citizen
Wednesday, September 12, 2007

As today's Press-Citizen reports the winners of Tuesday's public school board elections, it’s also a good time to consider whether our government school system is appropriate for a free society.

We Americans pride ourselves on our belief in ideological freedom, deriving from freedom of the press and freedom of speech. Nearly everyone agrees that we must be able to freely discuss ideas and to hear news that is unflattering to the government. We want an independent citizenry, not one that unquestioningly submits to authority.

So why then do many people continue to believe in government indoctrination of our children? That government controls what is taught to our children for the first 18 years of their lives should make the skin of civil libertarians crawl. How can this be regarded as ideological freedom?

Why, in particular, do left-leaning people, who commendably oppose censorship and distrust authoritarian government, still believe that the near-monopoly of one-size-fits-all government schools are better than the diversity provided by private ones?

The first reason for this inconsistency is their belief that “public” schools mean that “the People” own the schools, and so therefore they are more “democratic”. But America is not a democracy, it is a republic – rule by laws, not majority mob rule. Shouldn’t minority groups have a choice in what is taught to their children?

Second, they imagine that without public schools, America would fragment into a Balkanized state of competing ethnic groups. But we avoided such fragmentation (and in fact, formed a union of states) before public schools were established in the 1850s. Americans were mostly immigrants then, and they adapted quite well. Do we really want a “Borg” government assimilating newcomers, stripping them of their cultural identities?

Third, they are concerned about how poor parents could send their children to school if it wasn’t state-provided. This is a legitimate concern, because a permanent underclass is anathema to Americans, who believe in equality of opportunity.

However, it is our compulsory inner-city public schools that are leading to an underclass. Under a free-market education system, schools would compete to offer the highest quality education (with the best-paid teachers) for the most reasonable prices, so nearly all parents would be able to afford tuition. Truly needy families would be helped by charitable and parochial schools, and private scholarships – real choices for poor parents.

Public school advocates have not fully considered the problems caused by government schools:

In a government school system, while all taxpayers are forced to pay for government schools, only the politically powerful get to control what is taught to our children.

Also, the increasing centralization of education means that local and individual concerns matter less each year. Additionally, increasing money is spent on bureaucracies, less on teachers.

Most dire of all, when government operates the schools, we get government-educated children: “perfect citizens” who remain ignorant of how government works, never question government officials, always pay their taxes (no matter how much is demanded), and who become completely dependent on government jobs, services, programs and mandates covering every aspect of their lives.

Public school teachers undoubtedly view themselves as independent, but how can they be? They are paid government employees: of course they will teach that government is beneficent (a self-replicating system, in which government employees teach kids to want to be government employees – no wonder Leviathan grows). And as schools have become more dependent on federal money and the strings attached to it – programs like “No Child Left Behind” – teachers have even less control over teaching. (Half of teachers leave the field within five years – is it any wonder?)

Under a free-market system, every school would be different, and both poor and middle-class parents (as well as teachers) would have real choices that they don’t have now. If one school didn’t address their concerns, parents would take their children (and their money) to a different school, or even start one with similarly-concerned parents.

This is the ultimate decentralization of our school system: each school receiving funds only from students’ families and from voluntary donors. Schools would be beholden solely to parents, students and teachers – not to politicians and government bureaucrats. The result: a blossoming of diverse schools, with the accompanying ideological freedom that befits our free society.