The United States is in the midst of an education crisis; this is not news. The underperformance of American students, particularly in science and math, is well-known, as is the education bureaucracy’s dereliction of duty in the country’s poor and urban communities. Almost all Americans seem to acknowledge the failures of the government school system; today’s disagreements and debates are confined only to causes and proposed solutions.
The prevailing debate, however, has ignored or underappreciated salient features of U.S. education history and theory that explain today’s crisis. In particular, Americans have forgotten the destructive philosophy upon which the government education apparatus was built. The centerpiece of that philosophy is the fallacy centralization and monopolization equate to quality and results. The architects of the education system, influential progressives such as education philosopher John Dewey, consciously repudiated the classical liberal ideas of the Founding Fathers, which Dewey denigrated as “spurious liberalism” and “pseudo-liberalism” for its emphasis on the natural rights of each person. Dewey, in line with the dominant trends of his time, believed a powerful government, steered by technocrats, could reshape a malleable and perfectible human nature. Needless to say, education was to be at the center of this project of authoritarian collectivism.
These ideas originated decades before Dewey and 20th-century progressivism. Much more than any high-minded goal of “leveling the playing field,” early advocates of compulsory schooling sought social cohesion through forced conformity. Obsessed with government power and a nativist conception of American culture, 19th century education reformers could not tolerate rivals to their nationalistic vision.
Compulsory government schooling—euphemistically called “public education”—was calculated to achieve the goals of cultural and ideological uniformity. Immigrant cultures, languages, and religions, perceived as inherently dangerous, were to be suppressed and eventually obliterated. Prussia’s compulsory education model became the blueprint, not only in the United States but in the West generally. During this period, other nations similarly undertook the Prussianization of their civilian institutions. As Murray Rothbard explains, in late 19th-century France, “Demands for compulsory education arose from the goal of military revanche [revenge],” aimed at steeping the minds of the young in the brutal discipline and regimentation of martial society.
These changes in education policies were the practical consequence of deep philosophical shifts. Classical liberalism, grounded in the ideas of the Enlightenment, had highlighted the common humanity of all people across national divides. Through the 19th century, though, liberalism’s cosmopolitan orientation was increasingly eclipsed by ascendant nationalism, characterized by a focus on, in Dewey’s words, “the realization of the ideal of the national state.” Everything seemed to be turning toward the achievement of that goal. As Dewey observed, the shared humanity naturally emphasized by a philosophy that so cherished the rights of man “gave way to nationalism” as “[t]he ‘state’ was substituted for humanity.” The total state replaced humanity at the moment it replaced the individual, which was then relegated to the role of mere cell in the social organism.
For Dewey and other progressive reformers, ideas of free-market competition and limited government were obsolete and called for active denunciation. A 1934 report of the National Education Association, of which Dewey was honorary life president, pleaded that “[a] dying laissez-faire … be completely destroyed” and argued that all Americans “must be subjected to a large degree of social control.” As historian Michael B. Katz argues, progressive reform efforts are best understood as attempting “to foster modes of social control” in a changing America. Reformers attempted to outlaw alternatives to government education, an initiative that often coincided with anti-Catholic prejudice, since many such alternatives were parochial schools.
Perhaps surprisingly, these kinds of prejudices persevere today. U.S. Education Secretary John King, for example, recently betrayed his partiality to government’s centralized, one-size-fits-all approach and his lack of familiarity with homeschooling. Just as past education elites regarded Catholic education as backward, King worries homeschooled students are being shortchanged, denied the full range of education opportunities. It stands to reason the nation’s topmost education bureaucrat, himself inoculated in a machine geared for sameness, would not understand homeschooling. Its existence and its sterling record of results challenge the most long-held education theories of progressives, reflexively mistrustful of any approach that is not prescribed and administered by “qualified experts.” And in this fixation on “rigid and centralized systems of control, using narrow and reductive quantitative metrics,” we begin to find the answer to the question of America’s education ailments.
The dynamism and innovation America’s schools so desperately need cannot come from a failed socialism that promotes more centralization, technocracy, and bureaucracy. Rather, genuine solutions will come from the encouragement of competition and the removal of existing barriers to experimentation—that is, from school choice.
School choice can refer to any one of a range of policies designed to promote competition, expanding student options through vouchers, tax-credit scholarships, open enrollment in neighboring public schools, and other similar mechanisms. Under these programs, students and resources gravitate toward the schools that get results, measured using uncontroversial criteria on which Americans across partisan and ideological lines agree. Naturally, the available social science research, most of which utilizes random assignment, testifies in favor of this introduction of choice into the education system. A 2016 report authored by EdChoice Senior Fellow Greg Forster surveyed 100 empirical studies, distilling their findings on five key value standards: academic outcomes of choice participants, academic outcomes of public schools, fiscal impact on taxpayers and public schools, racial segregation in schools, and civic values and practices. On all of these metrics, the results overwhelmingly favor school choice.
As the EdChoice study notes, perhaps most important of all is the basic fact school choice “gives parents a meaningful way to hold schools accountable for performance.” Monopolies are, by definition, protected from accountability, their consumers held captive due to the lack of an alternative. The most obvious deductions of economic reasoning and even a cursory consideration of incentives warn against this kind of institutional design, and the existing studies confirm its destructive ramifications.
Competition and choice motivate teachers and school administrators to serve student interests; ostensibly, for good teachers and administrators, those align perfectly with their own. School choice programs break government’s devastating education monopoly and allow parents to match their child to the school that best suits that child’s unique needs.
School choice is dangerous to the political class precisely because it shifts power and decision-making authority back to the family unit, empowering parents and students over governments, local, state, and federal. History and theory are united in attesting to the same troubling fact: The United States’ experiment in government-provided education is another in a long list of the failures of authoritarian government planning and state socialism. If we want better schools— schools that fulfill their duties by providing a quality education at reasonable cost—we need choice, competition, and the accountability they engender.
[Originally Published at Forbes]