L. Neil Smith's
Number 182, July 15, 2002


Public Schools
by Mark Lamoree

Special to TLE

Over the past several weeks, signs have begun to appear in a number of suburban yards. They do not claim affiliation with any political party, but urge passers by to "Vote for candidates who will support our public schools." There is no statement of why this is a good idea. The assertion that we must not only preserve the public school system, but also actively support it has, like mush-mouthed assertions about the need to protect our children, become a bromide. The desirability of a government run public school system is taken to be so patently obvious that it needs no defense.

It is not, however, obvious that government schools are a good idea. Public schools may be able to claim several compensations for the tax dollars they consume, but they are also accountable for a number of ills. The question advocates of a government school system fail to answer is whether those benefits may be achieved without the illsby a private school system.

The system I am offering as a basis of comparison is a voucher model in which the government maintains a laissez-faire attitude to the educational marketplace. Tax dollars would still be used to provide funding for schools in the form of portable tuition credits, but there would be no more governmental imposition of curricular standards, nor would there be any schools directly run by the federal, state, or local government. The purpose of this essay is not to outline in detail the working of such a program, but to offer a comparison between government controlled and parochial education. Therefore, I will avoid any wonkish outline of how such a program would look.

Public schools were originally established because it was supposed that an illiterate populace was not a viable foundation for a democratic republic. The aim of public education, then, was not to allow citizens to gain skills that are beneficial in the job market (although reading and writing are certainly useful in a search for employment), but to create a citizenry capable of self-government. As the nation progressed, the industrial revolution and the information age made it virtually impossible to succeed without education. Schools, therefore, changed in order to meet new educational demands. The one-room schoolhouse was gradually replaced by the multi-tiered and standardized educational system. At the same time, "progressive" educational theories espoused by John Dewey and his ilk began to re- shape the classroom itself. The result of these changes is the modern public school establishment.

The question is: "Is this a good idea?" In other words, are the benefits to students and parents of this system outstripped by its drawbacks? They are.

Victims of the public school system are broadly separated into two groups: those who are not educated by the public schools and find themselves with no viable options, and those who are the unwilling targets of social and political engineering by legions of do-gooder educational "experts".

The first group is as easy to ignore as the proverbial elephant in the living room. It is nearly universal knowledge that inner-city students, along with those in impoverished rural areas are chronically under educated. Anecdotal and statistical evidence show that these students are lacking in basic reading and mathematical skills. As if this were not sufficient reason to condemn the schools that serve these communities, many of them offer an educational environment in which a student is taking a tremendous physical risk simply by walking in the door. Parents and students in this system frequently have no way out: they can not afford private schools, and the limited number of scholarships offered are at least partially based on academic merit. A student who has never received a proper education has little or no chance to open that door. Home schooling is not an option for them because it takes considerable financial resources both in terms of required materials and time away from work. Given the prevalence of single parent homes in impoverished areas, it is unreasonable, if not simply stupid, to propose home schooling as an option. The parent is thus left with one option: send his child to a school that does not teach and may endanger the child's well being. An under-educated student, unless he possesses a great deal of athletic skill, has little chance of going to college and therefore little chance of escaping poverty.

Consider as an extreme example the Kansas City, Missouri school district, which lost its State accreditation for x years. These students have virtually no chance of obtaining a higher education. They are compelled by a maleficent combination of poverty and law to continue attending schools that can guarantee only one thing: a continuation of the cycle of poverty. This is more than a tragic situation; it is an abomination in a nation predicated on the idea that government is instituted to serve, rather than condemn its citizens.

Those students who are lucky enough to live in better school districts receive a better education, at least in the sense that they are more able to read, write, and do math. They are, however, subjected to indoctrination by an educational establishment that has a definite agenda. Public schools, whether by intention or default, tend to produce students who are steeped in a left-liberal worldview. Teachers are overwhelmingly democrats and textbooks tend to present a left- liberal and communitarian view of history and politics. Whether or not this worldview is correct is not the subject of discussion here. Rather, I am questioning whether it is acceptable to extort money from taxpayers who may or may not support this ideology to support this system, and whether it is morally acceptable to compel (de facto if not de jure) parents to educate their children in it.

A Christian parent may object to his daughter being taught methods of birth control in a classroom that his taxes help pay for, while another parent may view abstinence only education as the surest way to ensure an early pregnancy. Still another parent may object to having his children indoctrinated in the lore of the drug war by DARE programs. These parents have two options: to send their children to public schools and try to teach their own values at home while continuing to support the system to which they are morally opposed by paying taxes, or to send their children to a private or home school more in line with their values while continuing to support a system they oppose by paying taxes. The tiger, or the bigger tiger?

Finally, there is the issue of students who do not do well in traditional classroom settings. These students may be learning disabled, exceptionally bright, hyperactive, or a combination of any of these. In a school system that by necessity focuses on educating the average student, these children are an afterthought. Although there are schools and classes tailored to the learning disabled as well as the exceptionally bright, they tend to be appendages of a larger system. For those students who do not fit easily into either category, there is the classroom presided over by a teacher who is often already overburdened and has no time to deal with "disruptive" students. Thus, a hyperactive or extraordinarily independent child may find himself subject to chemical constraints-one of the thousands of children dosed with Ritalin or some other "calming" drug.

So, we are left with the question, "Why should we support public schools?" Clearly, the current system is not working. Nor does there seem to be any way to reform the system in time to save those already victimized by it. A market solution would not be perfect. Utopia, after all, is a myth. It would however, create choices and options for those who have none. So, why vote for candidates who support our public schools? Good question.

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