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Public Schools: Turning Children and Parents into Peons

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Public education is the most expensive “gift” that most Americans will ever receive. Government school systems are increasingly coercive and abusive toward both parents and students. While politicians speak grandly of the supposed benefits of public education, government courts have ensured that parents and children have no legal rights to a decent education.

Federal, state, and local governments impose over $270 billion in taxes to pay for public schools for 40 million students. A 1992 study by the Center for Government Services at Rutgers University found that nationwide, the equivalent of almost 5 percent of Americans’ per capita income is spent to pay for government elementary and secondary schools. Most parents pay more in federal, state, and local taxes than the government spends to educate their children. Discussions about public education often implicitly assume that public education is a gift from benevolent politicians and wise administrators for which people must be grateful. But talking of “free schools” makes as much sense as talking of “free taxes.” The reason that government schools appear to be “free” is that politicians force parents to pay for their children’s schooling with taxes. But paying for schools with taxes, rather than voluntarily writing a check directly to the schools, radically changes parents’ relation to the school. Forcing parents and others to pay for children’s education with taxes has greatly increased government power over American families.

Government schools have a de facto monopoly on elementary and secondary education in the United States. Government schools enroll almost 90 percent of all children of school age because few parents can afford to pay twice for their children’s education. Supreme Court Justice Lewis Powell observed in 1974: “Most parents cannot afford the luxury of a private education for their children and the dual obligation of private tuitions and public taxes.”

Government school systems provide ample opportunities to subjugate, coerce, and humiliate young people. In Nacogdoches, Texas, elementary school students who forget their pencils are forced to wear bricks around their necks as a reminder. In Bartow, Florida, students are required to chew gum ten minutes a day because some school official read that chewing sugarless gum helps prevent tooth decay. In Colorado City, Arizona, a teenager was expelled from school for wearing a T-shirt with a penguin on it — the school principal suspected that the penguin image promoted devil worship. School officials have received increased power in the last decade to strip search children and to force them to submit themselves to the nation’s leading experts on constitutional rights — drug-sniffing dogs. On the other hand, government schools, increasingly paralyzed by lawsuits, routinely fail to do enough to restrain and punish students who commit violent acts against teachers and others.

Government schools are becoming more like a prison and less like a voluntary association of pupils and teachers for the advancement of learning. A 1976 federal report concluded that high schools “have become social ‘aging vats’ that have isolated adolescents and delayed their opportunity to learn adult rules, work habits, and skills” and recommended reducing classroom time to between two and four hours a day. John Burkett of the U.S. Department of Education observed in 1991: “It is only in the last 25 years or so that we have had this prolonged adolescence by forced schooling.” A 1983 research brief by the Justice Department’s National Institute of Justice recommended lowering the compulsory attendance age to 15 “to eliminate those students who view school as a prison or as a compulsory recreation center, and thus provide a safe environment for those who want to attend.”

But the more schools have failed, the more years of students’ lives they are commandeering. Since 1978, 11 states have extended the age of compulsory school attendance, and several states now make kindergarten mandatory. Colorado Gov. Roy Romer proposed a law in 1992 that would make schooling mandatory for all “at-risk” four-year-olds.

School systems are increasingly imposing heavy punishments on young people for missing a few classes — regardless of whether they have mastered their lessons. In 1991, the D.C. public school system instituted a new system of penalties, fining parents $100 and jailing them for up to five days if their child had two unexcused absences from school in a single month. In 1992, Fairfax County, Virginia, schools began failing any student who missed five days during a three-month quarter — regardless of the student’s sickness or academic performance. Fairfax parent Nancy Flynn complained: “The family sanctity has been threatened. This policy has interfered with my relationship with my kids. I am the one who decides whether they are sick enough to stay home.” School board member Anthony T. Lane responded: “Whether a parent has the right to take a child out of school, that’s their prerogative. It’s also the school’s prerogative to fail them.” School officials thus create new prerogatives for subjugating students regardless of students’ academic performance. Fairfax’s punitive attendance policy did not improve student performance, but it did result in larger subsidies to local schools because of slightly higher “average daily attendance,” which determines how much in subsidies the local education system receives from the state government.

The U.S. Department of Education has been aggressive in prosecuting vocational schools that take students’ money (primarily federal grants) and then provide little or no training. Yet the main difference between shady vocational schools and floundering public schools is sovereign immunity. It is far worse to promise to teach a person how to read and then spend 12 years breaking that promise than to promise to teach a person how to be a hairdresser and then spend three months breaking that promise.

Public high schools graduate an estimated 700,000 functionally illiterate teenagers each year. In 1977, a functionally illiterate high school graduate in San Francisco sued the public schools, alleging “misrepresentation — [the] defendants falsely and fraudulently represented to plaintiff’s mother and natural guardian that plaintiff was performing at or near grade level in basic academic skills such as reading and writing and was not in need of any special or remedial assistance in such basic skills.” The California Court of Appeals dismissed the case, opining that to hold public schools “to an actionable ‘duty of care,’ in the discharge of their academic functions, would expose them to the tort claims — real or imagined — of disaffected students and parents in countless numbers.” But just because the schools could be accused of defrauding “countless numbers” of students and parents is no reason to absolve them of responsibility for their misdeeds.

In a similar case in 1979, the New York Court of Appeals ruled: “Recognition in the courts of this cause of action would constitute blatant interference with the responsibility for the administration of the public school system lodged by Constitution and statute in administrative agencies.” Regardless of how badly school administrators have deceived and failed to serve students, parents are left no recourse but to file complaints with the same unresponsive bureaucracy.

In 1981, the Maryland Court of Special Appeals rejected a suit by a former student: “The field of education is simply too fraught with unanswered questions for the courts to constitute themselves as a proper forum for resolution of those questions.” The educational system policy has enough “answered questions” to force Americans to pay $270 billion a year in taxes for public schools, yet is too vague for state judges to consider any claims against the schools.

In 1985, a suit was filed on behalf of an Ohio student, alleging that as a result of the “negligent acts and omissions by the [public schools], plaintiff obtained the twelfth grade level and left Steubenville High School with a reading ability of only the first grade” and that the schools passed the plaintiff from grade to grade “so as to keep plaintiff in sports activities for the benefit of the athletic system in the schools.” Judge O’Neill of the Ohio Court of Appeals scorned the complaint:

“The primary duty of education lies with the parent to vigilantly pursue the education of his or her children. The duty of the State is to provide the means of education. Thus, a child who attends school for 12 years and receives no education must look not to the State but rather to his or her parents for their failure to perform a duty imposed by nature and by law.”

The state levied taxes on the parents so that it could perform the duty of education — and then deceived the parents and exploited the child by promoting him through his senior year of high school.

Thus, parents have an unlimited liability to pay for public schools, but the public schools have no liability to the parents. Law Professor Judith H. Berliner Cohen observed:

“No plaintiff to date has been able to convince a court that a school owes him or her any more than “a chair in a classroom.”. . .Insofar as they have been “deluded” into believing that it is not necessary to find alternate means of education, the students are arguably worse off than they otherwise would have been.”

Forcing parents to pay thousands of dollars a year in taxes solely for “a chair in a classroom” is especially unfair, since a student chair costs less than $200. At current spending levels, parents and other taxpayers nationwide pay an average of almost $70,000 for 12 years of public schooling for each child. In Connecticut, New Jersey, and New York, which spend over $8,700 per public school student per year, taxpayers are forced to pay over $100,000 for each child’s schooling.

And what are parents and other taxpayers entitled to for this pay-out? Less respect, poorer service, and fewer contract rights than a person who buys a $2.50 Big Mac hamburger. The fact that public schools have no liability even for the grossest negligence means that the individual parent is subjugated to whatever the schools choose to offer or inflict on to his children.

A 1983 federal report entitled “A Nation at Risk: The Imperative for Educational Reform” observed: “If an unfriendly foreign power had attempted to impose on America the mediocre educational performance that exists today, we might well have viewed it as an act of war.” But, many parents probably have as much of a chance of influencing a foreign dictator as they have of influencing a big city school board.

(Actually, it may be safer to criticize foreign governments than American school officials. Two parents on a school advisory board in south-central Los Angeles wrote letters to state officials criticizing the school principal. The principal responded with a $1 million defamation suit.)

Once the citizen loses control of his paycheck regarding his children’s education, it is futile in most cities to try to regain that control. The citizen’s rights end as soon as his tax dollar reaches the public treasury. Paying for schooling indirectly effectively turns parents from buyers into beggars. (Lawyer Adelle Cohen told the New York Times that if New York City’s District 21 school board “considers you an enemy, they take your kid and put him in the slow class.”) Public schools vivify how control over financing for a service leads to political controls over people’s lives.

In 1979, the New York Appellate Division dismissed an educational malpractice suit, ruling:

“It is our opinion that [the State constitution and state laws] merely require the creation of a system of free common schools. Their purpose is to confer the benefits of free education upon what would otherwise be an uneducated public.”

This is the false dichotomy upon which the public school monopoly is based — public education or an “uneducated public.” This view stands history on its head, since it was private schools and private learning that created the mass literacy for which America was renowned 200 years ago. John Adams wrote in 1765, “A native of America who cannot read or write is as rare an appearance as . . . a comet or an earthquake.” Alexis de Tocqueville, visiting America in the 1830s — at a time when many locales had no public schools — observed that “primary education is within reach of all.”

New York teacher and author John Taylor Gatto observed:

“By preventing a free market in education, a handful of social engineers . . . has ensured that most of our children will not have an education, even though they may be thoroughly schooled.”

Government schools are constantly justified by their ideals, regardless of the violence and incompetence of public schools themselves. But judging public schools solely by the rhetoric of politicians and educators is like discussing monarchies and talking only of the ideal of an omnibenevolent king. The mythology of public schools has endowed the school system with superior rights over both parents and children.

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    James Bovard serves as policy advisor to The Future of Freedom Foundation. He has written for the New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, New Republic, Reader's Digest, Playboy, American Spectator, Investors Business Daily, and many other publications. He is the author of a new e-book memoir, Public Policy Hooligan. His other books include: Attention Deficit Democracy (2006); The Bush Betrayal (2004); Terrorism and Tyranny (2003); Feeling Your Pain (2000); Freedom in Chains (1999); Shakedown (1995); Lost Rights (1994); The Fair Trade Fraud (1991); and The Farm Fiasco (1989). He was the 1995 co-recipient of the Thomas Szasz Award for Civil Liberties work, awarded by the Center for Independent Thought, and the recipient of the 1996 Freedom Fund Award from the Firearms Civil Rights Defense Fund of the National Rifle Association. His book Lost Rights received the Mencken Award as Book of the Year from the Free Press Association. His Terrorism and Tyranny won Laissez Faire Book's Lysander Spooner award for the Best Book on Liberty in 2003. Read his blog. Send him email.