Government Schools: The Failed Experiment

There has been a heated debate for some time now in our area (New London, New Hampshire) over what to do about an aging, over-crowded middle school for our school district. Many are pushing hard for a large, expensive, central facility in the center of the district; others want two smaller schools at either end. Here is my contribution to the debate, submitted as a letter to our local newspaper. I imagine it was unappreciated by most, but this is an issue that needs to be discussed in every town.

— Mrs. Samurai

The Middle School issue is heating up once more! But I think there is an important aspect missing in the debate. Before we potentially commit a huge amount of financial resources to a building, we should step back and look at the larger issue of public schooling – because there is a small but growing debate about its effectiveness that should influence the decision we as a community make now.

There is overwhelming evidence that public schooling has not been a successful experiment and should be dramatically altered, if not phased out entirely. I feel a little like the kid who claimed the emperor had no clothes in saying that because it is such an accepted institution in our country. But did you know that until the mid-1800’s there was no compulsory schooling and yet evidence shows that the non-slave population in that time was nearly completely literate – including a large number of indentured servants? However, since compulsory government schooling began, literacy has steadily declined. In fact, over the span of the 20th century, functional illiteracy (unable to read or write a simple message) doubled to around 20%. No doubt you’ve all heard other grim statistics, and no matter how much more money or brand-new facilities we throw at the problem, it’s only getting worse.

So, our country had an early educational system which basically centered around family choice and free-market schools. You may argue that if things were so great, why did public schools even get started? The short answer is that by the mid-1800’s a lot of powerful people were getting nervous about the possibility of lower-class uprisings (“Red Scares”) as well as the large influx of immigrants with their strange customs and religions (such as Catholicism!). What better way to exert influence over people than for the government to be in charge of education? Before you think I’m some kind of conspiracy nut, you should know that in Massachusetts, where this all began, the idea of compulsory government education was so abhorrent to most citizens, so against the ideals of our free society, that there was resistance from about 80% of the population and even armed uprisings in some communities. It took a few decades before the militias finally forced the last of the families to comply.

Alas, now we take it as a given that the government will have a complete monopoly on the education of our young people. This in a country where almost any other product or service is subject to the forces of the free market. We can go to the store and choose from a variety of good-quality and reasonably priced ball-point pens, but when it comes to the education of our children we are forced to pay more and more for schools that are increasingly failing to produce well-rounded and well-educated children. Even though we are “free” to homeschool or send our kids to private school, our choices are pretty limited and our taxes are still going to the government schools.

I don’t have room here to really address another problem with institutional schooling – the harmful effects of keeping children segregated with their own peers and a handful of adults for such a huge chunk of their childhood. Of course, schools aren’t the only thing wrong with our children’s environment. For various reasons there has been a gradual decline in the life of the family and community, especially due to the influence of television and other electronic media. But whether schools are a cause or a symptom, we will never be able to restore some of what’s been lost without dramatically changing the way we view education and acknowledge the importance of having children spend less time in an institutional setting and more time in the community and with family.

So how does all of this relate to our current debate? This is a huge issue, and even if the majority of citizens agreed with my position, how we could get from where we are now to a free-market system of education is obviously beyond the scope of this letter. My point is that if a financial commitment is made now to a large central facility, then for generations to come the future of schools in this area will not be up for debate. Even if, as I suspect, people increasingly question the method of institutional schooling we’ve been experimenting with, we would be stuck – too many resources would be tied up in that building to try a system that offers more freedom and choices to the families in our communities.


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