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Throw D.C.’s Government Out of School

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Everyone is breathing a sigh of relief that D.C. public schools have opened on time this year. Perhaps we shouldn’t be so hasty. Are the children of the district really better off being herded back into the public school system?

Despite decades of mandatory-attendance laws and the expenditure of tens of millions of dollars, just about everyone agrees that D.C. public schooling has been a miserable failure. The public schools are often nothing more than dilapidated centers of drugs and violence. It has become increasingly difficult to persuade teachers to teach there, and those who do oftentimes won’t send their own children into the system. And more often than not, students are bored or distracted with the whole process, at least until they’re injected with Ritalin to correct their “problems.”

Every year, we are beset with new reform plans detailing how we can finally make D.C.’s public schooling system work. The latest plans call for vouchers, charter schools, new buildings, reading programs, testing, and the like. Despite the best intentions of the reformers, however, the reforms are doomed to fail. After all, let us remember that public schooling is just another government program. When was that last time you saw any of them succeed?

There’s a better alternative for the parents and students of our nation’s capital: separate school and state the way our ancestors separated church and state. This would mean the repeal of school compulsory-attendance laws and the repeal of school taxes. It would mean the end of all government involvement in D.C. education. Yes, a total free market in education by entirely junking the public school system.

The free market produces the best of everything. The best automobiles. The best clothing. The best churches. The best food. And it would produce the best education possible. Isn’t this what every parent wants for his child?

Imagine: Each family, rather than government officials, would be in control of the educational decisions for each of their children. Hundreds of entrepreneurs would be vying for each family’s business with a variety of educational vehicles. Some families would choose schools with prayer; others would choose secular ones. Some families might choose music schools; others might choose those specializing in math or science; some would go with a broad liberal arts education. Some families would educate with no school at all. Voluntarily working together, parents, children, and educational producers would discover the best means by which each child could best fulfill his own, unique potential.

“But in a free market, only the rich would be able to afford an education.” That’s the same argument that people made when someone proposed ending state support of religion. “Only the rich will have churches to go to.” With the elimination of school taxes, each D.C. family would be able to keep his school tax money to spend on his children’s education. And let’s not ignore the historical willingness of the wealthier members of society to help fund the education of those who are less fortunate. Even today, there are people donating hundreds of millions of dollars of their own money to help children they don’t even know to escape the ravages of public schooling. We must burst the myth that only government officials care about the education of the poor.

Why D.C.? Two reasons. First, as the place where public schooling is the worst, the children here are suffering the most. Second, as the nation’s capital, the people here have the opportunity to lead the nation – and the world – out of the public schooling morass. And since D.C. has initiative and referendum procedures, D.C. residents are able to circumvent the public school establishment with the following provision on the ballot: “No law shall be passed in the District of Columbia respecting the establishment of education or abridging the free exercise thereof.”

The debate should not be over how to make public schooling finally succeed after decades of failure. The debate should instead be over whether to give the D.C. government an “F” in education and throw it permanently out of school.

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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.