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An Echo, Not a Choice

Friday, November 1, 1996

Most people would agree that the Second Amendment to the Constitution guarantees citizens the right to keep and bear arms. Yet not even its most zealous defenders would construe this right to mean that the government should supply everyone with a carbine. Not so, it seems, with education. Most people agree that children have a right to an education, but we have come to accept that the government itself should do the educating, compel all children to attend, and require all citizens to pay for it.

          This error in logic has had calamitous consequences. The takeover of education by the states in the mid-19th century and the resulting abdication of authority by the family set in motion a crippling concatenation of usurpation and surrender that continues to this day. Now education is an entitlement claimed by most, yet a right exercised by few.

          There was a time when Americans knew the difference between rights and entitlements. A right used to be understood as a claim in justice, our concept of which flowed from tradition and natural law. As Alexander Hamilton put it, "The sacred rights of mankind are written, as with a sun beam in the whole volume of human nature, by the divinity itself; and can never be erased or obscured by mortal power." Our constitutional republican tradition informs us that God, not the state, is the source of rights. The state's role, then, is not to bestow rights, but to protect them by enacting laws consistent with a common tradition of justice and by enforcing those laws impartially.

          In a totalitarian regime, by contrast, the source of rights is the all-powerful state, which permits citizens to exercise them only in its interest. The state may decide, for instance, that an armed populace threatens its power, and so suppress the right to keep arms. Similarly, it might decide that a populace able to feed itself independent of the state is not in its interest and suppress the right to own lands. But since starving people cannot labor for the state and are apt to grow restive, the state takes pains to feed them, while declaring solemnly their "right" to eat. Not surprisingly, the accumulation of power by the state gets a little easier with each new intrusion, each new surrender. As Thomas Jefferson famously put it, "The natural progress of things is for government to gain ground and for liberty to yield."

          Alas, the state may decide that a highly literate, self-reliant, and pious people is not in its interest, and gradually usurp the right of parents to educate their own children. How? By declaring it a "right" -- an entitlement, actually -- and making it free.

          The state funding of education, then, is not an act of benign concern for the cultivation of citizenship, but a hostile assumption of ownership. Before the state began to fund schooling, education was free to the public as a whole; individual families and communities bore the cost while exercising the rights of their children to be educated.

          In his book Wealth and Poverty, George Gilder recognized the social value of parents' retaining ownership of their children's education: "Nowhere is the vitality of families today more dramatically expressed than in the inspiring willingness of millions of American parents to save up to ensure a safe and rigorous education for their children. Moreover, this willingness is the highest sign of social responsibility. In their efforts to educate their offspring as best they can, whatever the cost, these families are making a major investment in the future of the country, and in the human capital on which coming generations will depend."

          Right now, the parents of 6 million American children (about 12 percent of the total) do not ask government to educate them. These parents own their children's education, either by teaching them at home, or "contracting out" to a private school. This number grows every year, and if conservatives could rally around a single goal, it should be to push that number ever higher. Perhaps one day we will speak of the 12 percent who still depend on government for schooling and worry about what can be done to help those poor folks.

          Many of us would say that education is the most serious, intimate, and sacred of all duties that parents owe their children. All parents must ensure that our children eat well, wear clean clothes, and sleep in a warm and secure home. Yet these duties are rather mundane compared to the awesome task of imparting knowledge and skills for self-reliance, instilling habits of virtue, and (many of us believe) preparing their souls for eternity. If we do not expect parents to pay for their own children's education, what credible argument can we then make that they should pay for their food, clothing, shelter, or medicine?

          It is not hard to see that once the government had usurped the solemn right of families to educate their children, it was only a matter of time and effort before it could have all the rest. And really, once the government took charge of controlling the minds of our children, the rest is mere table scraps. To tame a stallion you must first break its spirit; only then can it be made faithful and useful to its owner. Government schooling has broken the spirit of the American family. It perpetually affronts parents and denies that God's grace to parents is sufficient to nurture and rear the children He has placed in their loving custody. Government schooling reduces parents to the role of assistants who ensure the completion of homework, help with occasional projects, and get the kids to soccer practice on time. Government schooling is the very linchpin of the welfare state, the foundational tyranny that led to more than a century of servile laws to follow.

A Setback for Reform

          So where does education reform stand today? In poor shape. In every other area of welfare reform, from health care to food stamps to housing to social security, the essential question is finally being asked: Is this the proper role of government? Not so with education. Until we acknowledge that government schooling is welfare, real education reform is impossible.

Until we acknowledge that government vouchers are welfare, real education reform becomes impossible.


          For several decades now, the cutting edge reform in education has been vouchers, which is a way of expanding the existing education entitlement by making it more portable and flexible. The main problem with vouchers as a vehicle for reform is that it misdiagnoses the problem as overly rigid government dependency. If the clients of school welfare feel they get no respect, putting them on a longer leash and adding variety to their diet may make them more content for a time, but it does nothing to address the deeper problem of government dependency.

          It is well documented that every government that has subsidized private and religious schools, from Australia to France to Canada, has diminished their autonomy and blurred their distinction from state schooling. Vouchers offer private schools in America the same fate, even before the government slaps new regulations on participating schools. This is because the private schools that accept vouchers will no longer be owned by parents, but by the state. During a court challenge to a pilot voucher program in Cleveland, Ohio, a lawyer for the American Federation of Teachers recently provided a sneak peek of how parents and the schools they choose will be regarded under a voucher plan. In oral arguments, he characterized voucher-bearing parents as "inconsequential conduits" of state funds.

          To carry out your duty as a parent, you must own the means to produce the education for your children, by either contracting out or doing it yourself. "School choice" may make you a chooser but it won't make you an owner, any more than housing vouchers make you a homeowner. No government voucher frees you from dependence upon government. To rephrase Abe Lincoln, I'd prefer my welfare straight up, without the base alloy of self-delusion.

          Let us not, after all, mistake the appearance of a free market with reality. Voucher proponents contend that the creation of market conditions in education, such as parents' freedom to choose among schools, will bring about an actual market. Here is where some voucher proponents begin to resemble utopian socialists, who similarly promise that once the state owns everything and everyone has equal choices, the state will just melt away.

          We may fairly ask when we can expect the melting to begin. Milton Friedman hopes that vouchers will lead to the repeal of compulsory attendance laws and the elimination of all government funding for education. He has never explained how we go from our current 88 percent rate of dependency on government up to 100 percent, then down to zero. Proposals to require parents to match the government's contribution to their voucher forget that subsidy stimulates dependency. Vouchers in any form will create an insatiable constituency for bigger and bigger subsidies.

          I like to say that if I were advising the National Education Association on how to preserve and expand the government schooling monopoly (and didn't have a conscience), I would urge the following plan: Continue the pretense of opposition to vouchers (which fuels much of its support among conservatives), while embracing them strategically by softening genuine resistance. Wherever they pass, complain bitterly, then move in to regulate. Playwright, polemicist, and Fabian socialist George Bernard Shaw would have approved. In 1903, he wrote that "since more than half the children in [England] were in voluntary [privately funded] schools and could not be got out of them," they "should be fully financed by the State, and brought under its control."

          Whereas the Fabians aimed to emasculate religious schools, voucher proponents will do it inadvertently, then feel bad about it. Some, I fear, would even consider it an acceptable loss. Witness the recent push in Congress for a federally funded voucher plan for families in the District of Columbia. After Senator Jim Jeffords, a liberal Republican from Vermont, blocked passage of a voucher bill that had already passed the House, negotiators sat down to work out a compromise. Bowing to the teachers unions, the Senate eventually voted to kill the voucher plan.

          Nevertheless, the Senate did the right thing, albeit for the wrong reasons. Among other warts, the plan included a provision that required participating religious schools to provide written assurance that "funds received" under the subtitle "will not be used to pay the costs related to a religion class or a religious ceremony." Voucher proponents offered little apology for this egregious capitulation, and even less toleration of dissent from fellow conservatives. Critics of the D.C. voucher plan were scolded for being "purist" and failing to appreciate that politics "requires compromise."

          Of course that's just the point: politics requires compromise. No matter how well a voucher is crafted, it will be modified and undermined before its passage. Even if a pristine voucher plan could pass with so-called regulatory firewalls for participating private schools, it will inevitably be amended later. But the more troubling lesson of the D.C. voucher debacle is that it may not be possible to concoct a voucher too heinous to win approval from its perennial boosters.

          In The Tragedy of American Compassion, Marvin Olasky reminds us of the worthy charitable traditions in America that have withered as government assumed their functions. Olasky shows that there was indeed help for the widow, orphan, and outsider before government welfare, that it worked and even uplifted, and that we can have it again. Education likewise flourished in America before government monopoly schooling. This history will help us imagine what education might look like in the 21st century without government at the helm.

          Compulsory government schooling did not begin on a large scale in this country until the 1850s and 1860s. Yet early America was among the most literate nations in recorded history, according to Pierre DuPont DeNemours (1812), Alexis de Tocqueville (1835), and Michael Chevalier (1838). In 1776, Tom Paine's pamphlet "Common Sense" sold more than 500,000 copies in a nation of 2 million, many of whom were slaves or indentured servants! In 1818, Noah Webster estimated that more than 5 million copies of his Spelling Book had been sold to a population of less than 20 million.

A Better Way

          Proponents of vouchers say government help is needed to educate the poor. But there is a better way: privately funded vouchers, or precollege scholarships. Since the first program was started in 1991 by J. Patrick Rooney, the former chairman of Golden Rule Insurance Co., the precollege scholarship movement has ballooned to 27 programs serving more than 10,000 low-income children--all private dollars, all private schools. And the families of every one of these children, with an average income of $15,000 a year, pay a large portion of the cost of tuition. Precollege scholarships do two wonderful things at once: they bring hope to inner cities, and provide living, breathing examples of poor families breaking free from government subservience. Every child who leaves a government school for an independent school with help from an individual or business in his community represents another brick pulled out from the base of the Berlin Wall of government monopoly schooling.

Voucher proponents say we need to reach millions of children. Ah, yes, reach. Stalin had reach. Mother Teresa settles for depth.


          Precollege scholarships completely fulfill in miniature the goal of fostering independence from government. Citizens help the needy in the community to attend the school of their choice. Such scholarships liberate families without coercion. They are flexible, replicable, efficient, and empowering. They enjoy broad bipartisan support, and, if marketed effectively, could develop the same tradition of giving enjoyed by the United Negro College Fund, the Red Cross, and the Salvation Army.

          But wait, you say. Couldn't a government voucher be designed to work something like a precollege scholarship, including matching payments from families, few conditions, little or no oversight, and no regulatory encroachments? Well, as they say in Wayne's World: "It could happen!" But if it did, vouchers would represent the first nonintrusive, flexible, lean, voluntary, locally supported government program ever! More importantly, even if government could replicate the charitable and volunteer sector, why in heaven's name would we want it to?

          Voucher proponents answer that precollege scholarships are nice, but we need to reach millions of children! Ah, yes, the reach argument. Hillary Clinton's health-care plan had reach. Stalin had reach. Mother Teresa settles for depth. And conservatives should likewise steadfastly reject the standard that measures the goodness of a thing by its capacity and reach. We must not be dime store planners, competing with liberals at the numbers game. Rather, let's insist that all virtue is personal, that the fruits of virtue aren't transferable or subject to collectivization, that the term "education system" is as much an oxymoron as "love policy."

          No doubt restoring the enterprise of learning to families and communities will take more than private scholarships. Two important developments are already directing us into the next millennium. The first is the rise of entrepreneurs and investors who see a vast emerging market about to be liberated from the clutches of 50 state school monopolies. This will move beyond mere contracting for buses and books, and into the main course of the market: the provision of education services. Education Alternatives, Inc., which contracts with government schools, has fallen on hard times, but Nobel Education Dynamics, an operator of for-profit K-12 schools, saw its stock value increase 277 percent in 1995.

There is a better way to educate low-income children: privately-funded vouchers, or precollege scholarships.


          Beyond bricks and mortar, there will be an increase in computer-aided and on-line learning. Multimedia learning will come into its own as the "telecosm" becomes a reality in the next decade. Tutoring services like Sylvan Learning could blossom into for-profit schools. Gifted mavericks like Marva Collins and the hundreds of teachers who have joined the breakaway American Association of Educators in Private Practice are blazing a trail for thousands more to follow. In February 1996, the respected investment house Lehman Brothers held its first annual Education Industry Conference, tempting attendees with the promise of ground-floor opportunities in a $600-billion industry. Just one educational equivalent of FedEx, which challenged the postal monopoly, will change everything.

          A second key development will be a mass exodus of middle-class social conservatives from government schools. Christians must stop playing king-of-the-hill with liberals for control of Caesar's schools. Instead of lobbying the government for the right of children to keep Bibles tucked in their desks, we might consider building schools where teachers keep them on theirs. A hundred years ago, the Protestants used government schooling to gang up on the Catholics; for the past 30 years, the secularists have wrested control from the Protestants, and are lording it over them. Let's retire the bludgeon. Imagine the impact if Pat Robertson and James Dobson announced a goal of starting enough new schools to serve 5 million new children by the year 2000! Home schooling is already exploding, but one can only imagine how many more families would take back control if they had a choice they could afford and be comfortable with.

          Finally, there are some highly desirable and viable political actions worth pursuing, including the following abbreviated list:

          Tax relief. Taxes are to government schooling as blood is to a vampire. Funding for education must move from a hemorrhage to a trickle to a drop. Three-quarters of Americans do not have children in school. An increasing percentage of these will be older people, including many pensioners who own homes and pay school taxes. These good folks are being taxed down to cat food for a system they don't use, doesn't work, shouldn't exist, and churns out nasty kids with foul mouths and bad attitudes. At the other end, there are the 20- and 30-somethings, just starting to have families, and with fewer illusions about government deliverance than their Roosevelt-era grandparents and Johnson-era parents. These young families can't afford to buy a house or amass any savings and they know that their children don't have a prayer of thriving in the 21st-century job market with a government-school education. As we move forward, more and more people will demand to keep more of their own money.

          Scrap compulsory school-attendance laws. The great engine of talent and money now powering vouchers across the country should switch tracks and pull an easier load for a change. Nobody likes getting clobbered over and over again, and repealing compulsory-attendance laws is a less-threatening and highly appealing initiative. Why force children who don't want to be in school to disrupt those who do? Since attendance laws had a negligible effect in increasing attendance in most states where they were initially passed (90 percent of people already went), we have no reason to expect a significant decline in the rolls upon their repeal. But it will deal a heavy blow to the power and prestige of the school monopolies (always a good thing), and begin to build political momentum for things like the repeal of property taxes to pay for schools.

          Put the Feds to bed. Lately there's been much talk from former federal education secretaries about abolishing the U.S. Department of Education. This is a fine thing, but it must be part of a larger mission to end the federal role in education. Let's not merely shovel its programs back to other federal departments whence they came. Let the U.S. government be as silent in the area of education as is the U.S. Constitution.

          What I have sketched out will not be accomplished with sweeping measures but by the slow, gritty, and unseen work of millions. We must strive for a shining ideal, an arrangement for learning based not on force, but on love.