Curmudgucation: The Call To Abolish Public Education
Some days I really miss the long-ago days when the opponents of public education would just go ahead and say what they wanted right out loud.
For instance, there's a great piece that CATO, the Libertarian thinky tank (funded Back in the Day by the Koch brothers), put out in 1997. It has since been scrubbed from their website, but you can still find it on the Wayback Machine. It's Cato Policy Analysis No. 269. It's framed as a "debate" of sorts, though both sides are arguing about how best to separate education from the state.
The anti-voucher-ish side is taken by Douglas Dewey, who worked in the US Department of Education under Lamar Alexander (who is a story in himself), and he's only anti-voucher because "tax-funded vouchers will not eliminate or substantially reduce the state's role in education." I could dig deeper into his argument, but basically Dewey failed to anticipate how vouchers could be turned into a free market device without any accountability or oversight by the government.
The other "side" in this debate running the gamut from A to B is taken by Joseph Bast and David Harmer, and this is the one where folks get real.
Bast spent many years as the head of the Heartland Institute, from its inception until he retired from the job in 2017. He sometimes passes himself off as an economist, though he never finished any degree beyond high school. He's become known mostly as a climate change activist, staking out a position roughly of "Yeah, it's changing a little, and humans might be a tiny bit responsible, but so what."
]Harmer, son of California Lt. Gov. John Harmer, spent some time with Heritage, but has since bounced around, most recently heading up the Freedoms Foundation At Valley Forge. He helped set up the late-90s choice proposal in California, and he hasn't been shy about where he stands on public education (e.g. his 2000 article in the San Francisco Chronicle entitled "Abolish the Public Schools"). In 2010 he ran for Congress in California, though he kept the "burn it down" rhetoric to a minimum. Harmer argued for a return to colonial days, when everyone could get the kind of education they wanted
Schooling then was typically funded by parents or other family members responsible for the student, who paid modest tuition. If they couldn’t afford it, trade guilds, benevolent associations, fraternal organizations, churches and charities helped. In this quintessentially American approach, free people acting in a free market found a variety of ways to pay for a variety of schools serving a variety of students, all without central command or control.
Well, they could serve a variety of white, male, financially well-off students, through the primary grades, anyway.
I'm going to skip the deep dive on their essay, which invokes Friedman and the joys of the free market, and focus on the broad strokes.
Like this heading:
The Goal: Complete Separation of School and State
Just to be clear--that's a quote, not a paraphrase or interpretation. First sentence after it:
The authors are 100 percent committed to getting government out of the business of educating our children.
They invoke some other dead smart guys like Mills and Hayek and, of course, Lord Acton. They characterize education as one of those entitlements that just grows and grows. Then we're back to the main idea:
Vouchers Are the Way to Separate School and State
Like most other conservatives and libertarians, we see vouchers as a major step toward the complete privatization of schooling. In fact, after careful study, we have come to the conclusion that they are the only way to dismantle the current socialist regime.
Vouchers are a bona fide means of privatizing a public service. Vouchers are being used to get the government out of the business of building and owning public housing, operating job-training programs and day-care centers, collecting garbage, and running hospitals and clinics. Privatization guru E. S. Savas defines vouchers as "subsidizing the consumer and permitting him to exercise relatively free choice in the marketplace." According to Savas, vouchers are the most radical form of privatization short of outright service shedding.
So, not freedom. Not higher quality education. Not even choice. Though all of these arguments are raised by the piece, they are raised only as a means to the end, and the end is privatizing education and separating it from the state.
The writers also get into "public-choice theory," meaning the idea that a small special interest group "can outmaneuver the general public that perceives only an indirect or hard-to-measure benefit. Add to that the fact that the general public itself has largely been (mis)educated by the very schools that now petition for more resources, and you have a recipe for bureaucracy, monopoly, and mediocrity that will span generations." And then we're off and running:
Because we know how the government schools perpetuate themselves, we can design a plan to dismantle them. The general public may be programmed to like government schools, and even to believe that spending more money on them will make them better. But the public is not necessarily opposed to reforms that promise to make the schools more effective, less costly, or both. And thanks to the pervasiveness of choice in the private sector, the public puts a high value on being free to choose.
Vouchers zero in on the government school monopoly's most vulnerable point: the distinction between government financing and government delivery of service. People who accept the notion that schooling is an entitlement will nevertheless vote to allow private schools to compete with one another for public funds. That fact gives us the tool we need to undercut the organizing ability of teachers' unions, and hence their power as a special-interest group.
So this story is also old-- public schools are a scam perpetrated by the teachers unions, so ending public education provides an extra bonus.
Visions of the future
The essay also lays out how Harmer and Bast expect this all to play out. Vouchers will be launched in major cities as programs to help poor people (thereby avoiding charges of elitism). Once those are shown to be effective (note that they don't have to actually be effective--they just have to be made to look that way), then the support will spread.
Then, they predict, as voucher programs spreads and word gets out of the superior education thereby provided, public school enrollment will drop. Many "government school superintendents and administrators" will have to "move on to productive employment." Teachers unions will lose members "because the new schools will be smaller, more efficient, and therefore more difficult to organize." Then the unions will lose political power "ending their ability to veto substantive reforms and further privatization measures."
School boards will shrink in power and may be "reinvented to reflect the interests of taxpayers and consumers of education rather than government school employees." Their new role will be to set voucher amounts and distribute the vouchers. Tax support for education will drop because "the powerful interest groups that today prop up spending on education" will lose their clout. Voucher amounts will fall, and only the super-duper private schools will be efficient enough to remain. The lower taxes will free parents to spend the additional money on stuff like education. Meanwhile, the lowered spending as the tax spigot is turned off will "make education faster and less expensive." Maybe vouchers will eventually be means tested.
And now that they're really excited, there's this:
Finally, if libertarian advocates are successful and the entire welfare system is replaced with voluntary charity, means-tested education vouchers will end with the government welfare system.
That's some serious Grade A baloney there. Note that the authors assume that nobody really wants public education, taxpayers and community members don't actually vote in school board elections, and the public system exists only because "the blob" aka "those teachers unions and other special interests" have snookered everyone.
Note also the assumption that a privatized system would, of course, be more efficient, whatever the hell that is supposed to mean in education. The assertion that education will become faster and less expensive is the kind of hilarious assertion that only comes from people without a single clue about how education actually works.
There's more, like how vouchers would establish a "flight to quality" and how the current schools are just super, super terrible because A) students aren't learning to read and write, B) children are being indoctrinated with creeds and dogmas their parents disagree with and C) drugs, gangs and sex.
But you get the idea. Since 1997, folks have learned to paper over these ideas with one pleasant face or another, but the foundation remains--abolish public education.
Harmer and Bast, like their ideological progeny, have no real ideas to offer about the question of how a non-public education system could possibly serve all students--they don't even acknowledge that it's an issue. But they do successfully predict the direction that their movement will have to take:
Those who favor separation of school and state have every right to publicly declare their goals and debate the best strategies to achieve them. But if they want to change the status quo, they need to recognize the strength of those who oppose change and devise strategies that exploit their weaknesses. To actually change public policy, separationists must build coalitions with those whose goals, as Lord Acton wrote, may differ from their own. Careless words and criticism directed at members of such coalitions set back the movement toward separation.
Yup. Privatizers might have to ally with charter fans, people interested in social justice or, eventually, a movement to create a single system devoted to a funhouse mirror version of conservative values. But through all that, while CATO and Heartland may have scrubbed this from websites, they haven't scrubbed the mission itself--
Abolish public schools.
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