Education Beyond the Bounds of Bureaucracy

“Children who know how to think for themselves spoil the harmony of the collective society that is coming, where everyone will be interdependent. Independent, self-reliant people will be a counterproductive anachronism in the collectivist society of the future.” — John Dewey, 19th century Socialist party member and educational philosopher whose ideas are still studied by teachers today.

Education is not a one-size-fits-all product. Every single child is unique, with his own particular talents, interests, strengths, and weaknesses. It is well-recognized for example that different children have different methods by which they learn the most efficiently. Some are kinesthetic learners, learning much more quickly and easily in an environment in which they can practice what they are being taught hands-on. Others are auditory learners, learning much more quickly and easily through class discussion and reading aloud. Still yet others are visual learners, learning much more quickly and easily when they can see what it is they are trying to learn either in writing or on video or in visual charts and graphs. But the State education camps do not–indeed, can not–accomodate each child’s unique pace and style of learning. Children of all methods and speeds of learning are stuffed into one room, forced to learn at the method and speed of the lowest-common-demoninator in the class. The quickest are deprived of the opportunity to excel, and the slowest are deprived of the attention they need.

Some children, although they do excel in one or more areas (say, math and science), have absolutely no interest whatsoever in some other area (say, history). In the State education camps, however, they are not allowed to proceed in the areas that interest them; instead, they are forced to continue memorizing dry facts (the dates of various events; the abbreviations of various chemicals) in those subjects in which they have no interest. What benefit does a future journalist gain from being forced to memorize the periodic table of elements? What benefit does a future engineer gain from being forced to write an essay on To Kill a Mockingbird? What benefit does a future mechanic gain from any of it? And what benefit does society gain from being compelled to spend thousands of dollars subsidizing this?

In the State-education camps, children of all temperaments are forced into the same classes together; and thus, bullying is an experience shared by everyone who has been forced through the system. Nonathletic and overweight students are forced into the same gym classes as the more athletic ones; and for many children, it is no exaggeration to say that these are the worst years of their lives–some become so overwhelmed that they end up committing suicide or carrying weapons to school. The State’s education camps thus breed violence and hatred among a large number of children, and provide many of them with the setting for the most miserable years of their lives. Just last week (April of 2009), for instance, bullying led an eleven-year-old to suicide. GLSEN reported that this was at least the fourth suicide linked to bullying already this year.

“Is it not ironic that in a planned society of controlled workers given compulsory assignments, where religious expression is suppressed, the press controlled, and all media of communication censored, where a puppet government is encouraged but denied any real authority, where great attention is given to efficiency and character reports, and attendance at cultural assemblies is mandatory, where it is avowed that all will be administered to each according to his needs and performance required from each according to his abilities, and where those who flee are tracked down, returned, and punished for trying to escape–in other words, in the typical American high school–that we attempt to teach ‘the democratic system’?” – Royce Van Norman

In a society that has risen to untold levels of prosperity thanks entirely to one single economic factor–a consistently increasing specialization in the division of its labor–how does it make any sense to force each unique child through the exact same educational mold, indifferent to that child’s interests, talents, pace and method of learning? Shouldn’t the greatest degree of specialization be encouraged as early as possible, for the benefit of both the student and society as a whole? Shouldn’t each student be allowed to develop as far as he possibly can in his own subjects of interest–even at the detriment of subjects in which he has no interest? Shouldn’t each student be allowed to learn in his own particular way, and at his own particular speed? Wouldn’t society as a whole benefit as much as the individual student from a system which allowed the student to flourish in his own peculiar talents and interests, at his own distinct pace and in his own preferred method?

In an educational model imposed from the top-down by a faceless federal bureaucracy in the style of a Soviet monopoly, a one-size-fits-all education is indeed the only possible option. But imagine the prospects of a system where dozens or more schools, each free to set their own curriculum and offer any combination of classes they chose, competed in order to attract the attendance of students. Some schools would focus on english, literature, and journalism. Others would concentrate on science and mathematics. Still others might offer training in various trades–one might offer training in computer-repair skills and programming; another might offer training in such trades as welding and carpentry. Free to openly compete with each other to try to attract customers, and recognizing that their very existence depended entirely on the continued voluntary support of those customers, schools would be on a constant search for any and every innovation that could increase the satisfaction of parents and/or students. One obvious consequence of such a system would be that students who made no effort to learn, or disrupted class for other students, would not be tolerated for a moment–no school would want to lose the business of several students just because they tolerated a single disruptive one; and so, any report of bullying would be taken seriously and punished severely. Bullying and harassment would no longer be routine experiences that most children would have to suffer through.

A few hypothetical innovations that private enterprise schools might employ: students could be separated into separate classes based on their preferred learning method, whether visual or auditory. Visually-oriented students might learn the day’s lesson with graphs, charts, and written notes; auditory-oriented students with a lecture, and recorded audio instead of notes. Schools would likely put an end to the practice of grouping all children by age, opting to group them instead by their proficiency as well as their characteristic style and pace of learning. Some schools might remove sports from their curriculum in order to put more emphasis on education; others would retain them and use sporting events as an additional source of funding. While some schools might continue offering their education for nine-months out of the year, with two months out for summer and another month out between Christmas and other holidays, others could simultaneously offer their education year-round, offering three-week breaks every nine and thereby spreading its breaks more evenly throughout the year instead of concentrating them all during the summer. There would no longer be a debate over which of these systems should be imposed on the entire educational system from the bureaucracy down. Any other system or program demanded by a justifiably large number of customers would inevitably be offered by some entrepreneur seeing the opportunity to establish a new market or niche–and everyone would be free to make his own decision as to which system or set of programs he would prefer.

Likewise, there would no longer be any debate over such things as whether prayer should be allowed, or whether intelligent design or evolution should be offered. Each school would be free to set its own policy, and each student would be free to patronize the school of his choice. In regards to the allowance of prayer, each school would be free to either allow all religious expression, disallow expression of any religion, or even officially endorse a particular religious denomination and only take in students of that particular religion or lack thereof. Religious students who wished to get their education alongside fellow students of the same religion would be free to do so, and nonreligious students who wished to get their education as far away from religion as possible would be free to do so as well.

Given the freedom to innovatively compete, schools would find creative solutions to these problems that a federal bureaucracy never would have dreamed of. In response to the evolution-creation debate, one possible innovation might be to allow ninth and tenth graders to choose between an evolution or intelligent design class, and then bring both groups together in the eleventh and twelth grades for debate classes in which each group would try to defend its own position from the other. In such a hypothetical system, each student would understand both evolutionary and creationist ideas more thoroughly from both sides. But innovations such as these are never even discussed in regards to the public schools, much less implemented–and they never will be, because state-education camps don’t face a single one of the economic incentives that are so fundamental to the operation of a voluntarily financed, private enterprise school.

Of course, in all likelihood schools as a routine would publish statistics on the post-graduate successes of its students, in order to attract students through statistical demonstration of its proficiency in preparing individuals for sucessful careers. I personally find it unlikely that creationism would long be taught within such a system, because the number of people willing to voluntarily purchase creationist courses would drop rather significantly if and when statistics found graduates of creationist classes having little or no success in scientific fields. Individuals actually seeking a successful career in science would gravitate towards the courses whose graduates had the highest success rates; and programs teaching evolution would, in my humble opinion, fill this role rather quickly. Regardless, this issue would remain open for free market enterprise to decide. Besides, even if creationism is in fact wrong, the minds of devout religious creationists are unlikely to be changed by using the State to force those individuals into classes teaching evolution. Respect for individual choice and tolerance of opposing viewpoints are more important than shoving a particular viewpoint down people’s throats—particularly when the minds being thus forced aren’t planning on changing any time soon anyway. Individuals have the right to pursue their own happiness—and if that involves the voluntary purchase and attendance of courses on creationism, then so be it.

A state-education camp that is assured of subsidies and state teachers who are assured of being paid whether children are learning and parents are satisfied or not has no incentive whatsoever to improve its quality, cut its own wastes, please parents–or hell, even to teach children. The Supreme Court has ruled that the public schools that people are forced to subsidize through taxes in fact have “no duty to educate individual children.” Compare this to private schools like Sylva Learning Center that give a refundable promise to teach in two months what the public schools can’t teach in ten–for half the price.

Of course, some percentage of the children forced through the state system have no desire or intention whatsoever to learn anything–and yet society is forced to pay approximately $10,000 in taxes to drag them through the system anyway, so that they can accomplish absolutely nothing apart from making life more difficult for teachers and lessening the quality of education and amount of attention on all the other children in the system who are actually trying to make an effort. These children still end up dropping out of school and getting a job in manual labor despite their mandated “education.” This process is counter-productive in every conceivable way—it wastes taxpayer money; it wastes teacher’s time; it wastes the time of the rebellious and uncooperative children; and it lessens the level of individual attention (and, therefore, quality of education) for all the children in the system actually making an effort to learn. In a private enterprise system, it would be no loss that such children would not be forced through the system at taxpayer expense for twelve entire years—and it would be clear to those children that, education or none, their future is entirely in their own hands. Thus, every child attending a given class in a private enterprise system would have strong incentive to make the best effort he possibly could to learn and not be disruptive; and the school in question would have strong direct incentives to punish and prevent such practices as bullying, drug dealing, and harassment. That every single one of these incentives is absent from the state-education camps is surely accountable for the omnipresence in these camps of drug dealing and harassment. Society as a whole will be better off when those who actually want to learn are able to get the best and most personal education possible, while those who don’t and aren’t willing to make an effort aren’t forced with thousands of taxpayer dollars to pollute the entire system for everyone.

Children would not be the only group to benefit from a private enterprise in education. Teachers, in fact, would benefit greatly as well. One of the greatest reasons teachers’ wages are so low is because the massive waste allowed by the absence of profit-and-loss incentives in the public system has to be spread out across all of the state’s employees, thus lowering wages for all teachers all across the board. The first economic incentive a private enterprise school would face would be to lower its costs by cutting any wasteful or unnecessary expenditure. These lowered costs of operation would then be passed on to teachers, as schools competed to hire the most efficient staff possible by attempting to offer the best teachers higher wages than their competitors. Teachers with high success rates and good reports from ex-students would be more valued, and as such the school at which they were employeed would offer them the high wage justified by their proficiency. Teachers with low success rates and poor reports from ex-students would soon be let go or fired. Thus, free market schools would select and rewards its teachers for merit just as every other sector in the free market selects rewards its employees for merit. The profit-and-loss system would give schools the incentive to fire bad teachers, offer raises to better ones in order to prevent competing schools from attracting them with the offer of a higher salary, and cut wasteful spending wherever possible. This would also thus provide teachers with a direct incentive to teach as efficiently as possible and try to make their lessons interesting enough to keep their students’ attention; in other words, to ensure the success of their students in whatever way possible. Hence, the first effect of free enterprise in education would be to raise teachers’ wages across the board, as wasteful spending was cut and schools competed with each other for the best teachers; and the second effect would be for teachers’ wages to increase or decrease in direct proportion to their actual success in teaching, providing teachers with an actual incentive to increase their proficiency and give special attention and focus to each individual student. That every single one of these incentives is absent from the state-education camps is surely accountable for the overwhelming failure of these camps to educate American children in even such basic skills as reading and elementary arithmetic.

Now to provide an answers to a few simple objections.

1. “There are parents out there who just don’t care. They do not care if their kid gets an education; they do not care if their kids skip school. Some parent would rather them stay at home, stay in the yard, or work.”

First off, in a system in which parents actually had to purchase their child’s education (directly, instead of indirectly through taxation), parents would most definitely care if their children were skipping the education that they were having to pay for. Second, most parents plan to rely at least to some degree on their children to take care of them in old age. Third, not many parents enjoy the prospect of keeping their children “up” unnecessarily. Thus, only if a parent didn’t want his children to be able to leave home and become self-sufficient, didn’t plan on relying on them at all in old age, and planned on keeping them up at home himself for an indefinite period of time would he not want them to get an education that would lend itself to a successful career. Only if all these motives are found to fail might there be a need for negligence laws against failing to provide one’s children with an adequate education, and a free enterprise educational system would have room for such laws just as there already are negligence laws against failing to provide one’s child with sufficient food, water, and clothing, in the absence of government-operated, mandatory restaurants and clothing stores. Regardless, such laws may actually prove unnecessary. In early-eighteen-hundreds America, for instance, before public education had even been introduced, private educational attendance in Boston was recorded at 96% by a committee organized to study the issue.

This country was far more literate before education became a state province than it is today. In fact, if education had remained private, any proposal to turn it over to the state would shock all lovers of freedom. But now, Americans [have become] inured to the intellectual serfdom of state education. —Joseph Sobran

2. “In a private enterprise system, only the rich would be able to afford education.”

Even right now, with the limited market that private schools receive, the majority of them cost less than the public schools. It is crucial to realize that the state schools are not free; they are simply funded through taxation instead of voluntary payment. It costs $10,000 to send a single child through public high school. Private high schools, by comparison, average between $5,000 and $7,000 for a better education over the same period of time. And if private enterprise schools replaced the public schools, their greatly expanded market would provide them with a financial incentive to offer their services even cheaper. Is it better business to sell a service for $10,000 and attract 150 customers, or to sell that same service for $4,000 and attract 500? In this example, the school in question would increase its total income by half a million dollars by cutting its tuition by more than half. And in a free enterprise system, private schools would most likely operate on an even greater economy of scale than this, and would thus quickly lower prices even below these hypothetical rates. Here is a link to one of many studies demonstrating that the actual price of public schools is twice that of the average private school, and approximately equal to even the most elitist, expensive private schools in existence.

Chris Cardiff, of the National Center for Independent Education, has calculated that if every single one of the 16 million poor and lower-middle-class children in America were provided with a $1500 scholarship to a private school, the cost would come to $24 billion. This is less than 8% of what is currently spent on public schooling nationwide. Even on top of a tax burden surpassing 40%, Americans already donate more than $216 billion dollars to charity each year–and an additional $37 billion is raised in addition to this in private donations to higher education. Raising the mere $24 billion needed for the education of the poor in higher-quality private schools would be no problem at all, especially once Americans received the $316 billion dollar tax cut that would accompany the abolishment of government-operated schooling. The business community itself, because it benefits from the existence of a market of well-educated workers, would be likely to donate to schools that taught students skills that made them into valuable workers. Many businesses already have to spend a great deal in order to educate their workers themselves; so, in a private enterprise system, these resources would simply be redirected to the private sector. What about children in isolated, rural areas? A full education from kindergarten through college is already available through correspondence, video, and the Internet; and if this avenue was proven useful, like anything else proven useful in the free market, it would expand. All of these factors and more would increase the ability of poor and/or rurally isolated students to get an affordable, high-quality education.

“Many companies have moved operations to places with cheap, relatively poorly educated labor. What may be crucial, they say, is the dependability of a labor force and how well it can be managed and trained, and not its general educational level, although a small cadre of highly educated creative people is essential to innovation and growth.” — Thomas B Sticht, president and senior scientist, Applied Behavioral and Cognitive Sciences, Inc; Oct 23, 1989

Beyond the fact that private schools would offer affordable and effective education to a wide market, it must also be recognized that every citizen does not actually need an entire high school education. Manual labor is an economic necessity, and there is little justification for forcing every single manual laborer through twelve years of the same science and history classes, with taxes appropriated from other citizens. As a final example: in New York, an entirely private and completely free education was offered to students by a group of teachers working in an abandoned store under the name, “Harlem Prep.” These teachers offered their curriculum to the poor black students that the state system had failed and discarded as hopeless. After four years of Harlem Prep’s program, over ninety percent of these poor students, who had previously been rejected by the public school system, went on to receive a college diploma and then hold successful careers. How did the public school system respond to this? By shutting Harlem Prep down.

3. “But we’ve always had public schools!”

Not so. Mr. Matthew J. Brouillette, President of the Commonwealth Foundation in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania and former Director of Education Policy for the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, writes: “From the outset of the first settlements in the New World, Americans founded and successfully maintained a de-centralized network of schools, up through [the late eighteen hundreds]. Early America was arguably the freest civil society that has ever existed. This freedom extended to education, which meant that parents were responsible for, and had complete control of, their children’s schooling. There were no accrediting agencies, no regulatory boards, and no teacher certification requirements. Parents could choose whatever kind of school or education they wanted for their children, and no one was forced to pay for education they did not use or approve of.”

National compulsory attendance laws for public schools were not established in America until the late eighteen hundreds. The Commissioner of Education who passed these laws—William Tory Harris—had this to say about his accomplishment, in 1908: “The great purpose of school can be realized better in dark, airless, ugly places . . . Our schools have been scientifically designed to prevent over-education from happening . . . The average American [should be] content with their humble role in life, because they’re not tempted to think about any other role. Ninety-nine [students] out of a hundred are automata, careful to walk in prescribed paths, careful to follow the prescribed custom. This is not an accident, but the result of substantial education—which, scientifically defined, is the subsumption of the individual.” Harris, in these quotes, clearly expressed his pride at the fact that the public education system was succeeding in its goals of stifling private initiative and independent thought, turning its students into “automata.”

This article so far has contained only a small amount of speculation on something for which there are literally an infinitude of possibilities. In reality, a fully free market in education, subject to the same innovative forces that gave society such things as electricity, cell phones, the ipod, and laptop computers, would develop innovations far more creative and effective than I could ever try to imagine or speculate about in a simple short essay. “It’s time to admit,” Albert Shanker, President of the American Federation of Teachers writes, “that public education operates like a planned economy, a bureaucratic system in which everybody’s role is spelled out in advance and there are few incentives for innovation and productivity. It’s no surprise that our school system doesn’t improve: it more resembles the communist economy than our own.”


2 Responses to Education Beyond the Bounds of Bureaucracy

  1. justinroberts says:

    good job man. i know you’ve been pushing this for years. it all falls back on how the gov’t wants to dumb us down and control our lives.

  2. -Mr. Wilson- says:

    I definitely agree with you on this one. It is a shame that so many people are satisfied with the atrocity that we call our public school system. With all of the problems with it, I’m surprised that nothing has been done about it, yet.

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