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Back to the Government’s Clutches

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Summer’s over and throughout the nation, parents are once again surrendering custody of their children to the government.

In what nation is that happening? The United States of America. Why are they surrendering custody of their children to the government? Because the government runs most of the schools.

Most people don’t think of it that way. But that is indeed what happens each fall. Children must be turned over to government officials. Parents who object in unapproved ways face sanctions, even loss of their children.

It is called public education.

For about 150 years government has dominated schooling in America. The results do not inspire universal joy. Before that, parents were in charge, and they did a good job. They scrimped and saved, chose schools, and guided their children toward independent adulthood. As adults, those Americans helped create the most dynamic, prosperous, and economically mobile society the world had ever seen. Literacy was high. Newspapers and literature sold like crazy. James Fenimore Cooper and Sir Walter Scott had no trouble finding many thousands of readers. (That would be tens of millions of readers in today’s population.)

But things changed. A small group of intellectuals, enamored with what the authoritarian Prussians were accomplishing with public schooling, decided that America could no longer leave education to the chance of family management. In the eyes of those intellectuals, who ired to create the perfect society, most parents were reactionaries, unfamiliar with the requirements of the new world. Only a scientifically designed school system directing the development of children could mold the future citizens just so. The intellectuals promised that the America of the future would be populated by loyal, enthusiastic, literate, obedient people who put the nation ahead of themselves and their own narrow concerns. Look at what advocates of government schooling said.

“Let our pupil be taught that he does not belong to himself, but that he is public property,” said Benjamin Rush, a signer of the Declaration of Independence and one of America’s earliest advocates of government control of education. “Let him be taught to love his family, but let him be taught at the same time that he must forsake and even forget them when the welfare of his country requires it.”

The father of public schooling, Horace Mann, said, “We who are engaged in the sacred cause of education are entitled to look upon all parents as having given hostages to our cause.” Now there’s a nice thought. I wonder how the parents saw it.

The founders of government schooling also promised that public education would end poverty, vice, and crime, and create social harmony. Ironically, today educators say they can’t do their job because of poverty, vice, and crime.

Look at the system these enlightened keepers of the nation created: bureaucrats make every big decision about a child’s education. They dictate when a child will begin school and which school he’ll attend for how many hours a day and for how many days a year. They dictate when he can leave school. They dictate what the child will learn, when, and how.

Parents are relegated to the role of cheerleaders on the sidelines. If they don’t like something, what recourse is left them? They get to cast one vote each in school board elections. That does not create real accountability on the part of those making the decisions. Compare that bogus power with the real power parents have over their children’s doctor or shoe store. If parents are unhappy, they can take their money elsewhere. They need no one’s permission. They don’t have to campaign for a new medical or shoe board. They are simply free to act in their children’s best interests as a citizen of a free country should be able to do.

We don’t recognize such freedom and responsibility in education. Yet education is a central ect of raising children. Take that responsibility away from parents and you get — surprise! — less-responsible parents. And we wonder why parents’ interest in education has declined. It doesn’t help either that education (falsely) appears to be free. A free good is never valued as much as one you pay for.

As you send your children off to school, ask yourself why, in a nation conceived in liberty, you have little say about their education. Isn’t it time we separated school and state and once again put full responsibility for raising children in the family where it belongs?

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    Sheldon Richman is vice president of The Future of Freedom Foundation and editor of FFF's monthly journal, Future of Freedom. For 15 years he was editor of The Freeman, published by the Foundation for Economic Education in Irvington, New York. He is the author of FFF's award-winning book Separating School & State: How to Liberate America's Families; Your Money or Your Life: Why We Must Abolish the Income Tax; and Tethered Citizens: Time to Repeal the Welfare State. Calling for the abolition, not the reform, of public schooling. Separating School & State has become a landmark book in both libertarian and educational circles. In his column in the Financial Times, Michael Prowse wrote: "I recommend a subversive tract, Separating School & State by Sheldon Richman of the Cato Institute, a Washington think tank... . I also think that Mr. Richman is right to fear that state education undermines personal responsibility..." Sheldon's articles on economic policy, education, civil liberties, American history, foreign policy, and the Middle East have appeared in the Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, American Scholar, Chicago Tribune, USA Today, Washington Times, The American Conservative, Insight, Cato Policy Report, Journal of Economic Development, The Freeman, The World & I, Reason, Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, Middle East Policy, Liberty magazine, and other publications. He is a contributor to the The Concise Encyclopedia of Economics. A former newspaper reporter and senior editor at the Cato Institute and the Institute for Humane Studies, Sheldon is a graduate of Temple University in Philadelphia. He blogs at Free Association. Send him e-mail.