government schools

The Venerable Tradition of Opposing “Government Schools”

Writing in Monday’s New York Times, Katherine Stewart–author of 2012’s The Good News Club: The Christian Right’s Stealth Assault on America’s Children–has purportedly uncovered what “what the ‘government schools’ critics really mean.” According to Stewart, those who criticize government schools “have their roots in American slavery, Jim Crow-era segregation, anti-Catholic sentiment and a particular form of Christian fundamentalism.” She then catalogues a litany of unsavory characters who opposed “government schools” because they believed in the righteousness of slavery or because they saw the schools as insufficiently fundamentalist.

I’m not going to directly address Stewart’s claims about people like Robert Lewis Dabney or James W. Fifield Jr., both of whom, according to her, opposed government schools for unsavory purposes. I wouldn’t be surprised if they did. Many policy proposals can attract unsavory people, but the mere existence of such adherents is not a sufficient reason to abandon the policy. If it was, then the fact that many early-20th century Progressive economists and social reformers championed the minimum wage because it would unemploy “racially undesirable” immigrants would be a sufficient reason to oppose the minimum wage.   

Instead, I’ll focus on two fundamental errors in Stewart’s article. First, she ignores the extensive historical provenance of critics of state education, i.e. “government schools.” To demonstrate this, I can’t do better than refer you to intellectual historian and Libertarianism.org contributor George H. Smith, who has done yeoman’s work on the history of critics of state education. Smith has paid particular attention to 19th century British Voluntaryists, such as Herbert Spencer and Auberon Herbert. In a series of essays on Cato’s Libertarianism.org, Smith tells the history of those critics. “Rather than giving to government the power to decide among conflicting beliefs and values,” writes Smith, “they [British Voluntaryists] preferred to leave beliefs and values to the unfettered competition of the market.” Smith continues:

One must appreciate this broad conception of the free market, which includes far more than tangible goods, if one wishes to understand the Voluntaryist commitment to competition and disdain for government interference.

British libertarians had a long heritage of opposition to state patronage and monopoly, reaching back to the Levellers of the early seventeenth century. The Voluntaryists, like their libertarian ancestors, believed that government interference in the market, whatever its supposed justification, actually serves special interests and enhances the power of government, thereby furthering the goals of those within the government. The various struggles against government intervention were seen by Voluntaryists as battles to establish free markets in religion, commerce, and education. It was not uncommon to find the expression “free trade in religion” among supporters of church-state separation; when the editor of the Manchester Guardian stated in 1820 that religion should be a “marketable commodity,” he was expressing the standard libertarian position.

When fellow free-traders, such as Richard Cobden, supported state education, the Voluntaryists took them to task for their inconsistency. Those who embrace free trade in religion and commerce but advocate state interference in education, argued Thomas Hodgskin (a senior editor of The Economist) in 1847, “do not fully appreciate the principles on which they have been induced to act.” “We only wonder that they should have so soon forgotten their free-trade catechism,” wrote another Voluntaryist, “and lent their sanction to any measure of monopoly.”

Before free-traders ask for state interference in education, Hodgskin argued, “they ought to prove that its interference with trade has been beneficial.” But this, by their own admission, they cannot do. They know that the effect of state interference with trade has always been “to derange, paralyze, and destroy it.” Hodgskin maintained that the principle of free trade “is as applicable to education as to the manufacture of cotton or the supply of corn.” The state is unable to advance material wealth for the people through intervention, and there is even less reason to suppose it capable of advancing “immaterial wealth” in the form of knowledge. Any “protectionist” scheme in regard to knowledge should be opposed by all who understand the principle of competition. Laissez-faire in education is “the only means of ensuring that improved and extended education which we all desire.”

School Bureaucracy and the Death of Common Sense

If you needed more proof that bureaucracy induces the sacrifice of common sense to rigid rules, there’s this forehead-slapping story from the Washington Post’s Petula Dvorak:

Avery Gagliano is a commanding young pianist who attacks Chopin with the focused diligence of a master craftsman and the grace of a ballet dancer.

The prodigy, who just turned 13, was one of 12 musicians selected from across the globe to play at a prestigious event in Munich last year and has won competitions and headlined with orchestras nationwide.

One would expect that she’d be the pride of her school. Unfortunately, little Miss Avery attended a government-run school in Washington D.C.

But to the D.C. public school system, the eighth-grader from Mount Pleasant is also a truant. Yes, you read that right. Avery’s amazing talent and straight-A grades at Alice Deal Middle School earned her no slack from school officials, despite her parents begging and pleading for an exception.

“As I shared during our phone conversation this morning, DCPS is unable to excuse Avery’s absences due to her piano travels, performances, rehearsals, etc.,” Jemea Goso, attendance specialist with the school system’s Office of Youth Engagement, wrote in an e-mail to Avery’s parents, Drew Gagliano and Ying Lam, last year before she left to perform in Munich.

Although administrators at Deal were supportive of Avery’s budding career and her new role as an ambassador for an international music foundation, the question of whether her absences violated the District’s truancy rules and law had to be kicked up to the main office. And despite requests, no one from the school system wanted to go on the record explaining its refusal to consider her performance-related absences as excused instead of unexcused.

Why Would School Staff Force a Student to Freeze?

It seems mind-boggling. Minnesota public school staff forced a barefoot teenage girl in a wet bathing suit to stand outside in sub-zero weather until she developed frostbite. 

It happened around 8:30 a.m. Wednesday at Como Park High School in St. Paul. Fourteen-year-old Kayona Hagen-Tietz says she was in the school’s pool when the fire alarm went off.

While other students had gotten out earlier and were able to put on dry clothes, Hagen-Tietz said she was rushed out with just her towel.

On Wednesday morning, the temperature was 5 below, and the wind chill was 25 below.

A teacher prevented her from getting her clothes from her locker because the rules stipulate that everyone must immediately leave the building in the event of a fire alarm. Shivering, the student pleaded to be allowed to go inside a car or another building but her request was denied.

Hagen-Tietz asked to wait inside an employee’s car, or at the elementary school across the street. But administrators believed that this would violate official policy, and could get the school in trouble, so they opted to simply let the girl freeze.

Students huddled around her and a teacher gave her a coat, but she stood barefoot for ten minutes before obtaining permission to sit in a vehicle. By that point, she had already developed frostbite.

Schools of Choice Promote Civic Values

As Americans celebrate our independence this Fourth of July, we should reflect on the institutions that sustain a free society. Chief among these is an education system that instills the civic knowledge and values necessary for self-government. While our freedom was won on the battlefield, it must be nourished in the classroom.

Subscribe to RSS - government schools