Op-ed column: Public education monopoly spurs moves toward school choice

Back in 1985, as a Schenectady Gazette staffer, I wrote a column contending that the quasi-monopoly

Sometimes an idea’s time has come, and sometimes not.

Back in 1985, as a Schenectady Gazette staffer, I wrote a column contending that the quasi-monopoly misnamed public education wasn’t really the best thing for education and for the country. This wasn’t anywhere near a mainstream idea at the time.

I argued, and still argue, on two counts.

First, a government-run education system couldn’t be a one-size-fits-all institution in a pluralistic society because it could never really be unbiased on beliefs and values.

Even something as seemingly non-controversial as mathematics raises the question of how math got to be so orderly and predictable — by chance or by design? We’re not even talking about such hot-button issues as God, prayer, gender roles, socialism vs. capitalism, fetal life vs. women’s choice, morality, and sex.

Back in 1985, same-sex marriage by legislative enactment wasn’t even on the horizon. Marriage was what it had always been and what God in Genesis said it is. Few people questioned that.

Even silence — attempted neutrality — isn’t golden because what’s not said can be pregnant with meaning. God has replaced sex as the most unmentionable word in schools even though the nation’s founders often called upon or referred to him, as in the Declaration of Independence.

When the success of the American Revolution looked very iffy, history shows a lot of people prayed really hard.

What’s actually happened in government-run education is that the most powerful interest groups get to decide what children learn. Fights over evolution and sex education have been battles royal, to name just two issues. What one citizen calls education, another calls indoctrination.

This is one reason for the exodus of parents into home schooling and private education.

Early consensus

In the early days of America, life was ideologically simpler. Most people subscribed to some variant of Christianity, usually of the Protestant type. Schools were more locally controlled and inculcated religion, morals and information. The Northwest Ordinance of 1789 was enacted by Congress to govern American territories that would later become states. Regarding education, it stated: “Religion, morality, and knowledge, being necessary to good government and the happiness of mankind, schools and the means of education shall forever be encouraged.” Those days of near consensus are gone, and with that is any hope that government-run schools can keep everybody happy.

My second point then and now is that government’s having a centrally controlled quasi-monopoly on education is an anomaly in a free nation that has produced the most advanced and prosperous society in history. If freedom and free enterprise have so enriched our lives that even poverty in America is upper class by historical standards of poverty, then why cannot they be trusted to do the same for education?

It is counter-intuitive why diversity in school choices would be less innovative and effective than monolithic government schools staffed by teachers with guaranteed raises and lifetime jobs and headed by an army of bureaucrats.

Bureaucracies make big mistakes bigger by imposing the latest new idea on everyone, such as the ill-fated New Math and look-say method of reading. From my own experience with large organizations, I’ve noticed that bad ideas don’t always just go away — they get repackaged and recycled later on as new ideas. This is a kind of institutional masochism.

Despotism over the mind

The people who benefit the most from government-run education are the central planners, the control freaks, whose latest agenda is using schools to make fat kids thin. Nineteenth-century British philosopher John Stuart Mill warned about this undemocratic tendency in his essay, “On Liberty.” “A general state education,” he writes, “is a mere contrivance for molding people to be exactly like one another: and as the mold in which it casts them is that which pleases the predominant power . . . it establishes a despotism over the mind, leading by natural tendency to one over the body.”

Fortunately, unlike 1985, the forces of school choice are gaining momentum. This is being driven not just by the traditional concern about values in education but by dissatisfaction with poor student performance despite trillions of dollars spent. I couldn’t be the only parent appalled at some of the low math and reading scores in some school districts recently reported by the Gazette.

expanding efforts

Rachel Sheffield of the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank in Washington, D.C., reports in an article titled “Back to School: More school choice than ever” that school choice is expanding on every front including scholarships, tuition tax credits, educational savings accounts, and charter schools.

“Forty-two states introduced over 150 pieces of school choice legislation, and 12 states and the District of Columbia enacted plans to broaden school choice,” she writes, as one of many who see which way the wind is blowing.

Freedom in education — it’s an idea whose time has finally come.

Eric Retzlaff is a former reporter, editor and publicist living in Rotterdam. The Gazette encourages readers to submit material on local issues for the Sunday Opinion section.

Categories: Opinion

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