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Time to Separate School and State

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A few centuries ago courageous thinkers urged the separation of church and state. Religion, they argued, is a personal matter. It should not be regulated or funded by government. The principle was duly enshrined in the first amendment to the US Constitution. The country thereby avoided much civil strife and created conditions in which a luxuriant profusion of religions could flourish.

Should we now consider the separation of school and state? I realise the question will appear absurd in a nation as backward as England which still has an established church. Every Brit knows education is one of the primary responsibility of government. Parents should perhaps have a marginal choice over schools, but the big decisions must be taken by more knowledgeable ministers and bureaucrats. We are not, after all, talking merely of the future of individuals. The nation’s “competitiveness” depends on the success of state schools.

Americans are also attached to their public (government) schools, however badly they perform. Yet there are straws in the wind. Voucher schemes – which would allow parents to spend tax dollars on private schooling – are often proposed. And last week Bob Dole, the moderate Senate Republican leader, called for the abolition of the US education department, along with other federal agencies. This is less radical than it sounds since states and localities finance most US education. Yet his willingness to scrap a department that has been prominent in setting national education goals is indicative of the public mood.

The first reason why the state should not run schools is that government, by its very nature, is a poor innovator. Schools have changed little in 100 years. The teacher still stands in front of a classroom of kids. The school day is sliced into ridiculously short segments. The curriculum bears little relation to contemporary needs. Many pupils – probably a majority – learn little and become terribly frustrated. Few schools cater properly for the gifted.

We do not know what schools would look like if education were treated like other goods and services and provided, for profit, by competing private-sector companies. And we cannot judge by looking at the small (non-profit) private sectors in the US and UK, which inevitably take their lead form the public sector.

But entrepreneurs competing to satisfy the preferences of parents and students would undoubtedly innovate in countless ways. They would probably now be making much greater use of multi-media technology. Instead of providing a uniform product for all children, competitive schools would produce many different products tailored to the needs of pupils with different abilities and interests.

The second reason why government schools are undesirable is less well understood, but if anything more important. For those interested, I recommend a subversive tract, Separating School and State by Sheldon Richman of the Cato Institute, a Washington think-tank.

Mr. Richman, a libertarian, believes government should do no more than establish a legal framework in which individuals can pursue their own goals. State control of education is pernicious because it leads to social conditioning: it imposes one set of values on everybody – those favoured by the establishment of the day. It also undermines the family by relieving most parents of one of their fundamental duties, which is to manage (and pay for) their own children’s education.

To drive his point home, Mr. Richman traces the origins of government schools. The modern concept of compulsory, state-financed schooling arose in 18th century Prussia. The primary goal was not to education, but to turn children into pliant citizens who would revere the state. As Frederick the Great put it: “The prince is to the nation he governs what the head is to the man; it is his duty to see, think and act for the whole community.” To this day, schools are regimenting children like little soldiers. Mr. Richman quotes at length from leading 19th century US educators, who (like their counterparts in Britain) greatly admired the German model. One of them even referred to children as “human dough” to be placed on the “social kneading board”.

So what, you may say: children are no longer indoctrinated. I wonder. Even a novel as innocuous as Huckleberry Finn is being banned in many US schools. The truth is that teachers cannot avoid transmitting values to children. If they are paid by the state and spend their entire lives within bureaucracies, they are unlikely to understand – or feel sympathy for – the capitalist system. Make them part of the market process and attitudes might change.

I also think Mr. Richman is right to fear that state education undermines personal responsibility. On an overcrowded planet, most parents ought to shoulder the costs of education their own children, and not rely passively on taxpayers. Not fair, critics will scream: the rich can afford better schools than the poor. But this is true today because the affluent either opt out of the state system or live in the right neighbourhoods. The advantage of relying on market forces is that they will raise the average quality of schools (just as they do of supermarkets) while offering far greater diversity.

This article appeared in the March 13, 1995, issue of the Financial Times. Copyright the Financial Times. All rights reserved. Reprinted by permission.

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    Mr. Prowse's column "On America" appears regularly in the Financial Times.