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The Tragedy of the Public Schools Continues

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Judging from the newspapers, it’s been a rough time for the public schools. Control of the Washington, D.C., schools was taken away from the elected school board by an financial oversight body set up by Congress and turned over to a new board of trustees. At the same time, the superintendent was fired and replaced by a retired general. In New York City, the board of education revealed that only 43 percent of its $8.2 billion budget ends up in the classroom.

Meanwhile, another international study showed that American students are behind many other nations in math and science, despite more homework and classroom time.

Excuse me, but is reality trying to tell us something?

The D.C. schools spend over $9,000 per student. Yet they are among the worst in the nation. They are so bad that Stephen D. Harlan, vice chairman of the congressional financial control board, said they have fostered “educational child abuse.” The board gave the school leadership “an absolute F.” Pretty strong language.

Superintendent Franklin L. Smith was dismissed because, according to the financial control board, while the classrooms are short on textbooks and the schools are dangerous, his bureaucracy was bloated. After Smith’s tenure, and despite one of the highest per-pupil expenditures in the country, test scores are down, the dropout rate is high, the buildings are falling apart, and the management policies are just plain bad. The district spent more on the superintendent’s office than Fairfax County, Virginia, and Montgomery County and Baltimore, Maryland, combined. More egregious, the longer a student remains in the district’s schools, the less likely he is to succeed.

The case of New York City is apparently not unusual. Michael Casserly, executive director of the Council of Great City Schools, which includes the nation’s largest school districts, says other large urban school districts spend as little as New York does on the children, if that’s any comfort to the parents of the city. It seems that bureaucracies act like bureaucracies even when they claim to be educating children. Surprise!

The latest international study in which American students did poorly was the largest and most elaborate ever. It was conducted by the U.S. Department of Education. Students from five nations handily beat students from the United States in math and science: Japan, Korea, Singapore, the Czech Republic, and Hungary. American students were roughly even with German and English students.

What’s all this mean? It means that American taxpayers are paying a lot of money and getting precious little in return. And maybe that’s the problem: the schools are financed by the taxpayers. Taxpayers have no choice. They must pay or they are punished. But that means the schools have a guaranteed flow of revenue. Who expects someone whose income is guaranteed to care about quality or to be responsive to customers? If someone expected that of a private business, people would laugh. I don’t understand why people aren’t laughing at the nation’s school systems. Maybe they are too busy crying.

The government schools are a virtual monopoly with a lock on the public treasury. We should be surprised if they perform well. That people are generally satisfied with their own children’s schools simply means their standards have been systematically lowered over the years.

What’s the alternative? Many critics of government schooling say parents ought to be issued vouchers so they can choose private schools and introduce some competition into the system. The rather stark danger of that well-intentioned proposal is that it will let the government impose rules on the private schools and make them more like its own schools. Early in the century, English fabian socialists such as George Bernard Shaw favored government subsidies to private schools precisely to permit their regulation into conformity with so-called public purposes. Voucher advocates may intend to prevent such regulation, but it is hard to believe that a program that transfers “public money” to private schools won’t impose conditions. That would be a rare program indeed.

Another problem with the voucher plan is that it leaves unchallenged the principle at the foundation of government schooling, America’s first welfare program. The system imposes this dubious bargain on parents: Your children’s education will be paid for by the state, regardless of your means, and in return the state will make the big decisions about their education.”

The subtle message for parents is that they need not make education part of the decision about how many children to have. To that extent, public schooling fosters parental irresponsibility. Vouchers would modify the bargain slightly by letting parents have some choice about which school to send their children to. But as noted already, that choice will be more apparent than real.

There is only one true way to improve education and return to parents full freedom and responsibility for raising their children: separation of school and state. That would require repeal of school taxes, compulsory-attendance laws, and curriculum controls. It would mean treating education the same way we treat religion. However drastic that may sound-it actually harks back to an earlier, more literate time in America-only full separation will replace the dead hand of bureaucracy with the vibrant innovation of entrepreneurship and the invigorating tonic of freedom and self-responsibility.

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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.