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Volume 15, Number 4
School Values, Public and Private
William H. Peterson
President Clinton, standing tall among Miami schoolchildren and pushing the Drug Abuse
Resistance Education (DARE) program, calls on America's youth to stand for values. So does
the U.S. Department of Education in its master plan, Goals 2000. As do Newt
Gingrich and Trent
Lott, the Rainbow Curriculum in New York City, and the Dade County School District in
Legislators in every state are calling for a national conference on the teaching of values. The
step may be for the federal government to approve "national standards," which, Clinton
won't be "government standards." As with much of his rhetoric, he's hit on a distinction without
It's true that a growing teenage attitude in public schools seems to be one of petulance,
irreverence, neglect, and self-indulgence. The "let it all hang out" culture of the 1960s has
descended to an "in your face" culture in the 1990s.
In a Los Angeles Times op-ed piece, one high school teacher tells how she used
to start her day
saying "Good morning, students," who would then respond, "Good morning, Mrs. Jones." But on
her return to the classroom after a long hiatus raising her own children, her "Good morning,
students" was met by "Shut up, bitch" and howls of derision. In his 1993 book, Inside
Thomas Sowell points out that students are often "sent back home conditioned to disrespect and
disobey their parents." Parents are all too aware of this.
Yet the concern over values in public education is not properly centered. Civil libertarians
to something in asking just whose values are to be taught, even if they're not disconcerted about
teaching the young about environmental values and safe-sex values. In a federally backed
program, especially one promoting national standards, there is no mystery about whose values
The point lost in all this values-talk is that the medium is the message. There may have been
time when public schools, locally controlled and financed, taught the decent values of the
community. But these days, with funding and control increasingly centralized, it is the very
institutional structure of the school that shapes how schools advance their mission. And as John
Stuart Mill said, "general state education is a mere contrivance for molding people to be exactly
like one another.... It establishes a despotism over the mind."
America's worry over a general moral erosion in politics and society has coincided with
ever-more draconian federal control over education. What's often overlooked is that government
schooling itself may be the crux of the problem. In particular, the compulsory attendance laws
that exist in every state, and which are reinforced by federal programs, guarantee a captive
audience for political indoctrination.
What about the value of thrift? Public schools get ever more expensive even while spending
outcomes no longer correlate. Utah spends less per pupil than any other state yet ranks fourth in
average SAT scores; the District of Columbia ranks fifth in spending but 49th in
It all stems from the nature of government school funding: less local funding, plus more state
federal "aid" with costly controls. Since taxpayers fund public schools, parents and students pay
no tuition. They are either indifferent to costs or powerless to do anything about them. Forced
integration and bilingual education impose cost misfits. But because these schools are "free,"
these costs are disregarded. What a value to transmit!
If it's traditional values and traditional standards we want, the place to turn is private schools.
They mean consumer sovereignty and no captive audience. Their very structure is bound up with
parental commitment and personal agreement. They require values such as proving your worth,
being intellectually challenged, and working harder (both students and teachers). In a private
climate, respect for life, liberty, and property tend to thrive, if only by example.
British legal scholar Sir Henry Maine saw Western civilization as man's ascent from status to
contract, from being regarded as a child to being respected as an adult, or, in the case of a
student, as a potential adult--one able to fend for himself, forge contracts, serve as to be served.
A contract, the basis of all private enterprise, is a voluntary pact by which two or more
promise to do (or not do) certain things, so as to attain certain ends. It involves mutual trust,
shared equity, private property rights, individual incentives, future orientation, personal
responsibility, respect for others--values short or missing when tax dollars fund the education.
In government schools--and this also applies to "charter schools"--politics, not contract, is
key to the selection of students, teachers, textbooks, speakers, and guiding philosophies. No
wonder the three old "R"s lost out to today's Reproduction, Recycling, and Racism. And no
wonder self-discipline and self-application are sacrificed on the attitudinal altar of feel-good and
Values such as integrity, rectitude, truthfulness, honor, honesty, reverence, responsibility,
other building blocks of character have a better chance to grow in private schools. That's
because, in this case, the medium is the message. Consent is the key. Unlike their costly public
counterparts, private schools--free of politics and funded entirely by private resources--nurture
personal commitment, teaching and learning, liberty and independence; in short, a free society.
William H. Peterson is an adjunct scholar with the Mises Institute