Get Government Out of Education

Our public education system is failing in its two most important functions: giving children the basic academic skills they need in life, and fostering the common values that allow our country to continue as a civilized republic.  Students are underachieving at unprecedented levels.  Teachers are prohibited from teaching basic moral values, or covertly teaching values that are anathema to most Americans. 

In Chicago, a recent study revealed that not a single student can read at their respective grade level in 30 district schools; in math no student is proficient in 53 schools.  In  23 Baltimore elementary schools, not one student was found to be proficient in math.  The problem is nationwide and the answer isn’t money.  Some of the most expensive school districts in the nation, such as Chicago, and Baltimore, are some of the worst.

In addition to its academic failures, the public educational system has proved itself increasingly unable to promote the basic characteristics of good citizenship, and likely to undermine them.  Since the founding of our country there has been an attempt to balance religious liberty with the necessity of promoting common moral values.  After fleeing religious persecution in Europe, the colonists established a government prohibited from making any “law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”

But the Founders of our country knew that freedom from a mandated theology was not to be sought at the expense of promoting common virtue.  James Madison wrote: “To suppose that any form of government will secure liberty or happiness without any virtue in the people, is a chimerical idea.”  The great challenge to the American public school system has been to promote such virtue while not interfering with religious freedom.

Today, our public schools can’t meet this challenge. In 1963 a lawsuit originally brought by atheist Madalyn Murray O’Hair, the Supreme Court ruled that a law permitting student prayer violated the First Amendment.  Since then, schools have moved farther away from religious influence, with the necessity of cultivating civic virtues largely ignored.  At first, school prayer was dropped in favor of time set aside for “private meditation” but courts eventually ruled that this was also objectionable.  In most public schools all remnants of quasi-religious practice (e.g., classroom displays of the Ten Commandments) have been removed.  Some school districts have even prohibited voluntary religious activities on school grounds.

While public schools have increasingly distanced themselves from traditional moral values, they have substituted secular orthodoxies to fill the vacuum.  Examples include environmentalism, materialism, green economics, transgenderism, COVID control, and Critical Race Theory.  Frequently, such values are justified because of their supposed connections to societal “necessities” (e.g., preventing global warming) or “individual rights” (e.g., transgender students using female restrooms) with which many would disagree.  Often, they are not only encouraged in public schools, but mandated.  Any objection to their inclusion in the curriculum is viewed as ignorant, intolerant, and even criminal.  Attorney General Merrick Garland has encouraged the FBI to investigate parents who testify at school board meetings in opposition to various “woke” agenda items, calling their actions “criminal conduct directed toward school personnel.”

As schools continue to fail, teachers, their unions, and the politicians they support have led the fight against educational options demonstrated to be more effective – like charter schools, vouchers, and home schooling -- and particularly popular among those most reliant on public education. 

But teachers, teachers' unions, and their political allies are beginning to fail in their obstruction.  Arizona recently implemented the largest school voucher program in the nation, enabling the parents of 1.1 million students to receive 90% of the state funding that would normally go to local school districts.  Sixteen other states and the District of Columbia have voucher programs, and more states are planning to follow.  The South Carolina senate recently passed a voucher program that would provide parents with up to $6,000 to cover tuition, books and other costs, the second such program currently available.

Support for educational options is growing, primarily because of frustration with the present system, but there is also abundant evidence that alternatives provide more for less.  The New York Post recently reported that “New York City charter schools are giving taxpayers more bang for their buck, routinely outperforming traditional public schools -- and doing it at less than half the cost per student… The charters’ mostly minority student population bested its public school counterpart by up to 8% on both state math and reading tests in the 2021-21 school year… And the impressive results come courtesy of a relative shoestring budget, with city charters spending just $17,626 per student compared to the $35,941 spent on each public student, according to the center and Citizens Budget Commission.”

The New York experience -- accomplished in spite of strong opposition from teachers unions and politicians -- adds to a large body of evidence that alternatives to public schools (charter, private and parochial schools, home schooling, etc.) do a much better job at educating children at a much lower cost.

With clear evidence that public schools have failed, it’s time that government get out of public education.  More effective and less expensive alternatives are available, and they can promote the values our nation sorely needs.

A new system would require that educational funding follow each student as directed by their parents.  Parents would choose a provider that best met their educational objectives and represented their own values, and educational funding would flow according to their choice.  Educational alternatives would then compete for the students' funding, and the strongest would thrive.  This would be more than an educational “choice;” it would mean a redirection of massive educational resources that are currently being wasted.

It's time to stop asking why our schools don't educate.  Governments need to get out of the business of directly educating children, and allow parents -- and competition -- to revolutionize the American educational system.

Griff Hogan is a retired educator living in Charleston, South Carolina.

Image: Library of Congress

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