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The Trouble with Public School

March 7, 2001

In Tipton, Iowa, a teacher resigns because, reportedly, superiors were about to reprimand her for allowing a student to do research on rapper Eminem. In Mishawaka, Indiana, more than a thousand students were reported to have walked out of school because they didn't welcome a virtual complete ban on music in response to a parent's complaint about lyrics in the Shaggy song, "It Wasn't Me."

And in hundreds and more places the issue is basically the same: what some parents want out of a primary or secondary education for their children isn't what other parents want. And, more importantly, what may well be right for some kids to do in school may not be right for others.

Yet the parents are all taxed to support a system that delivers the same for all, albeit with periodic changes, based on the political winds. If the school board decides to ban research projects on someone who may be, for some of us, an obviously obnoxious performer, everyone in the district must abstain, never mind that they may find something worth studying in what the performer has produced. If the board bans certain books, movies or music in the district, only the very wealthy will be able to escape this ban.

And if a new US president gains office, he or she, too, will urge some universal, nation-wide policies, different from the prior office holder, that may help some but will usually not help all children in their educational goals.

In order to afford private education, one would need to be spared the confiscatory taxation that coerces us all to fund the public education that is imposed on most of us. Even those who do not pay property taxes directly, because, say, they rent, pay more rent because government hits up the owners of property for the loot, who then hand it down to their tenants. So there is no escape except for folks who are inordinately well to do or are willing to forgo many of life's amenities to go in on their own. And even then, government officials force the private schools to pass certain of its tests so as to qualify for certification.

Now it is true enough that nearly all young people ought to receive certain basic tools that are usually provided in elementary and secondary schools. But then it is also true that nearly all young people ought to be clothed, fed and given some moral education, something that is happening quite nicely, thank you, and thus far hasn't been taken over by the government.

Why not do this when it comes to education? Why are children forced into the one-size-fits-all system of public schooling when this is completely antithetical to their nature as individuals with very different needs and contexts?

The result of the continuation of this policy is what we see around us day in and day out - battles over what policies schools should follow, who is to win and who is to lose when it comes to curricula, library materials and prayer in school. It also leads to the constant vacillation of the one-size-fits-all system, depending one what band of politicians and bureaucrats happen to be in charge.

Most recently, for example, in the one Midwestern state, evolution was demoted to a loose hypothesis in high school biology courses, only to have this revoked a year later when different board members got elected. And whether some measure of religious observance has a role in public schools is something of a political football throughout the country, with courts offering various rationalizations for offering several unrealistic rulings on the matter.

Yes, we all need education, as we all need nutrition, shelter, clothing and hundreds of other things, and as parents we must provide these to our children -- but not in identical shape or form. Those who grossly neglect to provide their kids with such basics can be called upon to answer for what they do - perhaps there should be a legal category we might call "parental mal-practice."

But to hand the matter of educating kids over to the government is no different from doing this with their religious training. It is a bad idea and no manner of dodging that fact is going to do what is needed for the education of the young, certainly not President George W. Bush's twisted ideas of having government bring about the improvement of this fundamentally flawed system.

In many areas of human life people try to fix the symptoms because they are so wedded to certain basic but flawed approaches. Those band-aid measures may serve the limited purpose of getting things to limp along for a while. And that is what is being done to America's primary and secondary education.

But what is needed is something quite drastic, even radical: let free men and women work find solutions without recourse to the one thing government can do, namely, apply coercive force! That would unleash the creative energies of millions of people interested in educating children who would then very likely find all sorts of varied ways in which kids could gain the kind of education that is proper for them.

Not all would go swimmingly, of course. But very little is going swimmingly now and everyone seems to be upset, hoping for some miracle of getting a fundamentally misguided approach upgraded. It is a futile hope. Our real hopes for education reform are with individuals and families making their own educational decisions in a free society.

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Tibor R. Machan teaches business ethics at Chapman University and is an adjunct scholar of the Ludwig von Mises Institute in Auburn, Alabama. See his Mises.org Archive or send him MAIL.

 Purchase this wonderful book by Murray N. Rothbard, or read an excerpt.


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