A libertarian future would unleash markets to provide high quality education in a variety of styles to meet parent’s needs—and at prices within the reach of everyone.
Nothing, perhaps, captures what the basis of an education system in a free society should be better than the Declaration of Independence’s explanation of what government is instituted to do: secure the rights of the people, especially to “Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness.” It should be a system grounded in free decisions about what to teach and learn, when and how to pursue education, and how to preserve and protect diverse people, ideas, and ways of life. It should, frankly, be undergirded by intentions directly opposite those explicitly offered by many who have advanced public—that is, government—schooling: to homogenize minds. Government involvement should be restricted to dealing with proven neglect of children, and education should otherwise be left to the free decisions of all involved.
Must … Manufacture … Citizens!
How did a country founded on the ideals enumerated in the Declaration end up with a system in which almost 90 percent of elementary and secondary students are in government schools, are taught largely state‐formed curricula, and are under the overall increasing direction of the federal government? Numerous factors have been at play, but arguably the most potent has been fear: fear that some people might not be strongly attached to the state, or sufficiently moral, or economically competitive, or that they might just be too different. It has often been fear harbored by political elites—but sometimes by large swaths of the population—that has brought us to this very unlibertarian of places.
Some members of the Founding generation were among the earliest advocates of government‐run schooling. And the fear many seemed to have was not totally irrational, though it caused them to propose schooling at odds with the liberty at the heart of their new nation. Creating a country in which the people would be sovereign was a bold leap, and many of the Founders had serious worries about letting “the people” control the levers of government. The new country was also composed of states that were often more likely to elicit popular allegiance than the federation they created. That some would want an education system geared toward enlightening the people to inoculate against bad government, and to foster attachment to the new country, was understandable.
Benjamin Rush—a signatory of the Declaration of Independence, the surgeon general of the Continental army, and a very prominent Pennsylvanian—was perhaps the most direct in stating his desire to use public schooling to manage freedom. As he wrote in his “Thoughts upon the Mode of Education Proper in a Republic,” “Our schools of learning, by producing one general and uniform system of education, will render the mass of the people more homogeneous and thereby fit them more easily for uniform and peaceable government.”1 He went on, “Our country includes family, friends, and property, and should be preferred to them all… . Let our pupil be taught that he does not belong to himself, but that he is public property.”2
Noah Webster—of speller and dictionary fame—called for public schooling that would inculcate attachment to the new nation, right down to teaching distinctly American—and phonetically more logical—spellings for English words: no u in “color” or k in “music.” He wrote: “Americans, unshackle your minds and act like independent beings. You have been children long enough, subject to the control and subservient to the interest of a haughty parent. You have now an interest of your own to augment and defend: you have an empire to raise and support by your exertions and a national character to establish and extend by your wisdom and virtues.”3 Webster was very successful in spreading his American spellings, but not primarily through the public schooling that he desired. No, he was successful through millions of people independently buying his wildly popular spellers.
The fear of difference—especially moral difference—even more than of weak attachment to the country, fueled public schooling. Almost all well‐known early advocates for public schooling emphasized a need for a virtuous citizenry in a country in which the people ruled, and such virtue was roughly defined as holding elite, broadly Protestant values. Rush, Webster, George Washington, and many others emphasized the necessity of virtue. It was also a major theme for Horace Mann, the first secretary of the Massachusetts Board of Education and the “Father of the Common School.”
Mann was a member of the Boston elite who in the 1830s and 1840s became the nation’s leading crusader for free, uniform, government schools. Reading his voluminous writings advocating for common schools, one clearly sees that Mann thought that far too many parents were dangerously ignorant of proper child rearing and were morally ungrounded. Some of the impetus for that thinking was the arrival of many rural New Englanders into cities as industrialization burgeoned in the region. Mann seemed to perceive them as bumpkins and critiqued everything from their plugging up what he thought were valuable drafts in children’s bed chambers to their ignorance of phrenology, the belief that the bumps of one’s skull revealed crucial information about one’s mental condition.4 He also saw base desires running rampant that perpetuated such evils as the lottery, which he said “cankers the morals of entire classes of the people.”5 Lotteries, he declared, “await the dawning of that general enlightenment which common schools could so rapidly give, to be banished from the country forever.” (Today, of course, many states justify lotteries in part by directing some proceeds to public schools.) Mann asserted that by teaching a sort of pan‐Protestant morality and overriding the foolishness of parents, the common schools would create “more far‐seeing intelligence, and a purer morality, than has ever existed among communities of men.”6
As time went on, fear of disunity and dissimilarity became even more powerful as waves of people not of the Anglo‐Saxon, Protestant mold arrived, including Germans, Irish Catholics, immigrants from eastern and southern Europe, and Mexicans and Asians. Confronted by such demographic upheaval, public schooling’s reach was expanded and control increasingly centralized.
Part of that response was driven by rural sensibilities and “middle America,” where the conviction developed that public schooling inculcating Christian morals and a strong attachment to the country would usher in the 1,000-year period of enlightenment that would precede the return of Christ. “Educate the rising generation mentally, morally, physically, just as it should be done,” a Republican senator pronounced, “and this nation and this world would reach the millennium within one hundred years.”7
In more urban areas, the greater impetus was fear of insular ethnic and linguistic communities running their own schools and perpetuating “un‐American” ways of life, plus a powerful desire to ensure that constantly growing factories would have compliant workers. Urban elites consolidated power through increasingly large school districts, eliminating often ethnically homogenous neighborhood control and creating bureaucracies staffed by “experts” who would apply science to schooling by organizing it along industrial lines and deciding through such measures as IQ tests what students’ futures would hold. It rendered schools often callous factories designed to churn out Americanized widgets. Indeed, historian David Tyack reports that urban children often preferred factory work to school. Explained one 13‐year‐old boy as he cried over being ordered to school, “They hits ye if yer don’t learn, and they hits ye if ye whisper, and they hits ye if ye have string in your pocket, and they hits ye if yer seat squeaks, and they hits ye if ye don’t stan’ up in time, and they hits ye if yer late, and they hits ye if ye ferget the page.”8
For some, the homogenizing goal of public schooling was explicit. Wrote Ellwood Cubberley—a leading Progressive Era education thinker—of non-“Anglo-Teutonic” immigrants:
Everywhere these people tend to settle in groups of settlements, and to set up their national manners, customs, and observances. Our task is to break up these groups of settlements, to assimilate and amalgamate these people as a part of our American race, and to implant in their children, as far as can be done, the Anglo‐Saxon conception of righteousness, law and order, and to awaken in them a reverence for our democratic institutions and for those things in our national life which we as a people hold to be of abiding worth.9
Today, outright assimilation goals do not weigh as heavily as they did when the modern system was cemented in the industrial era, but the goal of creating uniformity remains. Democracy and education theorists, such as University of Pennsylvania president Amy Gutmann, argue that government should control education because society as a whole—as if we all shared one mind—must be able to perpetuate itself. Similarly, enabling people to choose schools without sacrificing their tax dollars raises the specter of “Balkanization”—the splintering of the country, and presumably subsequent warring. As Justice John Paul Stevens wrote in his dissent in Zelman v. Simmons‐Harris, which found school vouchers acceptable under the U.S. Constitution as long as parents freely choose:
I have been influenced by my understanding of the impact of religious strife on the decisions of our forbears to migrate to this continent, and on the decisions of neighbors in the Balkans, Northern Ireland, and the Middle East to mistrust one another. Whenever we remove a brick from the wall that was designed to separate religion and government, we increase the risk of religious strife and weaken the foundation of our democracy.10
Beyond fear of difference and disunity is worry that absent public schooling, children will not be educated at all, or will be educated poorly, and the country will suffer scientifically and economically. Cubberley wrote early in the 20th century that public schooling must prepare people for their essentially preordained places in the economy. “We should give up the exceedingly democratic idea that all are equal and that our society is devoid of classes,” he wrote.11 “The employee tends to remain an employee; the wage earner tends to remain a wage earner.”12
In the 1950s, following the psyche‐shattering Soviet launch of Sputnik 1, reforming the education system was thought to be key to catching up with our archnemesis. In the 1980s, the fear of economic death from the poison of bad education was crystalized in the federal report “A Nation at Risk,” which led off with: “Our Nation is at risk. Our once unchallenged preeminence in commerce, industry, science, and technological innovation is being overtaken by competitors throughout the world.”13 It then declared, “If an unfriendly foreign power had attempted to impose on America the mediocre educational performance that exists today, we might well have viewed it as an act of war.” The report was seminal in doubling down on command‐and‐control public schooling, helping inspire the creation of the National Education Goals and eventually the federal No Child Left Behind Act, which required all states to have centralized standards, tests, and punishments for poorly performing schools. The impotence of that law then drove efforts to have Washington coerce state adoption of nationally uniform curriculum standards known as the Common Core.
The Libertarian Edu‐Vision
A libertarian vision of education is not shackled by fear, not just because libertarians cherish freedom and loathe government coercion—coercion backed by a legal monopoly on force—but because of the powerful evidence that freedom works. It is a vision in which families and students choose education in the amounts and time frames they want, and educators freely decide what to teach, how, and for what price. It is a vision in which education isn’t privileged over the countless other goods competing for our finite resources—housing, vacation, transportation, video games, the latest fashions, annual physicals, cotton candy, and on and on—and a vision in which a political majority, or powerful minority, doesn’t get to tell everyone what learning they will pay for. This vision contains only one government role: to intervene if children do not receive the literacy and numeracy necessary to become free adults.
Education in a libertarian world would, for all intents and purposes, work like a free market, which is just another way of saying like a free society. Educators would establish schools—or tutoring services, or online academies, or would invent machines that instantly fill minds with knowledge—and would decide what they will teach, when, and how. They would face no government curriculum or testing mandates. They would decide whether to teach whole language or phonics, if calculus would be necessary to earn a diploma from their school, and whether history was taught from a “great man” paradigm or as endless class struggle. They could test students every day, administer only nationally standardized tests once a year, or not test at all. And they would charge on the basis of individual needs, what they think the education they are providing is worth, whether they want to be charitable, and myriad other considerations that millions of individual human beings may have. They would need little if any regulation—maybe just basic health and fire inspections for brick‐and‐mortar institutions—because real, immediate accountability would come through customers, using their own money or money voluntarily given to them by others, deciding whether the service being rendered was worth their hard‐earned cash.
This approach would be especially empowering for those to be educated. Parents, representing the interests of their children, would choose schools on the basis of whatever criteria they deemed important, and in the order they prioritized everything encompassed in education—from the time of day school starts to whether an institution has a core curriculum covering Aesop or Zarathustra. Price would also be a consideration, and it should be: prices are how we tell how much everyone collectively values any one thing versus any other—we value a $20,000 car 200,000 times more than a 10‐cent piece of candy—while also letting individuals weigh education against countless competing demands for their resources.
But wouldn’t the cost be too high for many families? The average price for a private school is about $11,000 a year, which certainly feels pretty daunting.14 But schools and charitable organizations often help people pay, and charitable giving would likely grow substantially if we didn’t assign government the job of supplying “free” education.
That said, the cost of education would almost certainly drop. In the current system, the schools that the vast majority of people attend do not compete with one another on price or anything else. The closest we get is towns competing, to some extent, for residents, and schools are only part of that blunt competition, lumped in with public services, such as police and parks, on property tax bills that people have no choice but to pay. And what any district can do to differentiate itself has been severely curtailed as states and the federal government have centralized decisions over everything from academic standards to teacher qualifications.
Freely charging educators—and having families pay with their own money or money they receive voluntarily from others, be they Grandma or church parishioners—would put steady downward pressure on prices. Families would be much more directly invested in, and aware of, education costs, and providers would compete on, among other things, price. And all that pressure would catalyze something else minimized in public schooling: innovation. In the current system, the need for single schools to deal with large, highly diverse student bodies—and to comply with state and federal dictates—chokes off numerous potential avenues for specialization and innovation, innovation that could greatly reduce the cost of an education.
It is easy to imagine many cost‐subduing innovations. Start with mastery versus seat time; if some students can learn to read in a few months, maybe aided by a computer, they can move on to the next thing rather than having to wait weeks or months for other students to catch up. And all students could potentially move much more quickly to completion if not locked in to schooling that must run six hours per day, 180 days a year. Schools could save money with larger class sizes but more effective teachers—maybe even teachers paid through subscriptions, who teach hundreds of thousands of kids each year, as seen in South Korean “cram schools.”15 Maybe some people would decide that art, home economics, or trigonometry are unnecessary, not to mention study hall requiring paid monitors. And those are just possibilities we can easily imagine; the really great thing about unleashing innovation is that we have a hard time foreseeing the game‐changers that someone, somewhere, may just be playing with in their heads right now.
A Legitimate Government Role
Would government have any role in a libertarian edu‐world? Yes, but it would be reduced to the relative size of a pin. The fundamental difference between how libertarians approach education and many other issues—drugs, employment regulations, religious rights—is that education, at least at the K–12 level, is about children, not adults. And a basic libertarian tenet is that government should not intervene in the voluntary exchanges of adults capable of self‐government; by definition, not children.
Since children are not generally considered capable of self‐government, someone has to act on their behalf, which could be parents, government, or both. There should be powerful resistance to government exercising any meaningful control over children, especially over what goes into their minds. Give government that authority, and it will too often lay the groundwork for those with power to indoctrinate children to perpetuate that power. Of course, parents will also try to instill their own beliefs and values, but it is far better that such decisions be decentralized so that in society a thousand flowers can bloom—liberals and conservatives, atheists and born‐again Christians, Yankees and Red Sox fans—and so that when children become adults, they will have countless ways of life from which to choose.
But there’s still the matter of enabling children to become self‐governing adults. Here, it seems parents have a duty to supply at least basic skills so that when children become adults they are equipped to choose their own paths. We might say that children have a right to education, but the corresponding duty falls only on parents. Say that it falls on society through government, and all people are compelled to provide education to children they had no role in bringing into the world, and freedom‐stifling collective decisions about what will be taught must be made. Members of society may absolutely of their own volition help educate children not their own—that is true community and true charity—but a legal obligation must not be imposed.
How would this work? Government would require all parents to get their children the basic skills they need to continue learning on their own. That means basic literacy and numeracy—the ability to read, write, and do math—which are necessary to eventually tackle history, science, art, and numerous other subjects in which most people will want to become educated. Such skills would enable students to tackle countless issues—evolution, the New Deal, sex education—that are too controversial to allow government to decide what is taught and how. It is unclear where the line of basic literacy and numeracy should be drawn—maybe an ability to read at an eighth‐grade level and handle algebra—but the important thing is that government be concerned only with basic skills.
Of course, the vast majority of parents care about their children and will probably want them to learn far more than that. Indeed, human biology compels parents to care about their children.16 They may also have the selfish motivation of wanting their children to care for them in their old age. Their kids will need the economic wherewithal, which is heavily influenced by educational attainment, to do that.
That basic literacy and numeracy would not be enforced through compelled school attendance, or by sending inspectors to all children’s homes, or anything so intrusive. Instead, withholding education would be treated as any other sort of neglect. Suspicion of failure to educate would be reported to authorities—perhaps by a neighbor who asked a child to read something and found that the child could not, or by the parent of a friend—and police would investigate. If the authorities found enough evidence of neglect, they would press charges, and the accused parents, assumed innocent until proven guilty, would get their day in court. Only if they were found guilty would government intervene by requiring—and if necessary, forcibly providing—education. Of course, such a situation would almost certainly be preceded by worse neglect; parents who would totally ignore their children’s education would likely be neglectful in more dangerous and earlier ways in their children’s lives, such as by failing to adequately feed or clothe them.
Unfortunately, the entire world has adopted the same basic education structure as the United States, so finding current real‐world examples of education systems that are closely akin to the libertarian vision is impossible. We can, though, see some pale shades of the vision to have some evidence that it would work. Many developed countries—for instance, Belgium, Canada, and the Netherlands—have systems that offer a lot more choice than the American education system, and they all surpassed the United States on the most recent Program for International Student Assessment scores.17 Of course, many factors affect test scores, and different tests get different results, so take that with a grain of salt. Experts on those other systems also generally report no negative association between choice and social cohesion—the big things that early public school proponents were so worried about.18 Indeed, the Netherlands has long had a very liberal system of choice, with almost anyone able to choose among myriad schools. And despite the high popularity of religious schools, the population has become extremely secular.
We could also look at our own higher education system to see the superiority of more freedom in education. American higher education is heavily subsidized by government, but attendance is voluntary, institutions have significant autonomy, and much of the subsidy is attached to students who freely decide which schools to attend. The result is a system offering a great variety of institutions, including community colleges, private liberal arts schools, for‐profit institutions, massive public research institutions like the University of Michigan, and the Ivy League. That system promotes specialization and competition, and as a result, American institutions regularly vie with one another to attract the best scholars in the world.
Meanwhile, most countries run their higher ed systems like we provide K–12 education: schooling is largely free to the students and is provided at government institutions. As a result, American colleges regularly dominate international rankings, and the country is by far the most popular destination for students studying outside their homelands.19 Our biggest problem is the price—sticker prices typically rise well in excess of inflation almost every year—but that problem is fueled by government, not freedom: student aid programs such as Pell Grants and federal loans enable students to pay high prices, and colleges raise their prices to bring in always‐desired cash.
We can also look at some of the poorest places in the world to see the importance of people paying with their own money and of educators working for profit. Researcher James Tooley has documented widespread for‐profit schooling industries in many of the poorest slums of the world, such as Hyderabad, India, and Lagos, Nigeria.20 These schools work with the world’s most destitute families and typically outperform the better‐funded public schools. Why? Because their paying customers will leave if unsatisfied. In government schools, money arrives regardless of customer satisfaction.
History, too, can show us that freedom works in education. The British tradition during the time of American colonization was essentially one of no government involvement in education, and that is what Americans tended to adopt. A few colonies required parents to provide basic skills, akin to the libertarian vision. But a seemingly big break occurred in 1647, when Massachusetts passed the Old Deluder Satan Act requiring all towns of 50 to 99 families to retain someone to teach children and of 100 or more families to maintain a grammar school. The schooling, however, wasn’t expected to be free, attendance wasn’t compulsory, and adherence to the law eventually crumbled in Massachusetts and wasn’t replicated in most other colonies.
The absence of public schooling did not appear to have a negative effect on learning, with more than 90 percent of white adults literate by 1840.21 On the flip side, governments often prohibited African Americans from being taught to read. Public schooling’s absence also did not appear to have a negative political effect. Before public schooling, the nation pronounced its independence, did so with a declaration laying out its Founding principles, won a revolution, and enacted the Constitution we still use; so much for public schooling being necessary to a free nation.
What about assimilating newcomers? Public schools often grabbed that mission, but the evidence suggests that immigrants assimilated despite the schools’ often heavy‐handed efforts.22 While coercive efforts often belittled immigrants and inspired resistance, newcomers had a natural incentive to blend in with broader society, preferably without having to sacrifice aspects of their cherished identities. Life is simply more comfortable when you share things in common with greater society—maybe an interest in baseball, popular music, or hamburgers—and it is easier to advance economically if you can work with people from other communities.
The evidence is also compelling that private schools tend to be better than public schools at inculcating core civic and social values like voting or volunteering in one’s community.23 Perhaps the reason is that private schools, rather than having to offer lowest‐common‐denominator instruction to avoid conflict among diverse constituencies, can furnish rigorous, clear civics curricula that all involved accept because all are there voluntarily.
Of course, we have much better examples of how free markets work if we look outside education. Whether it is the constant improvement of ubiquitous consumer electronics or ridesharing services like Uber and Lyft, we can see that freedom provides the things we need and constantly improves them. Nothing is inherent in education that puts it beyond the same forces.
Skip the Vouchers—Freedom Now!
If the libertarian vision for education is so wonderful, why bother with half measures like vouchers, or tax credits for people who use private schools or who donate to groups that provide scholarships? Why not separate school and state immediately, ending compulsory attendance laws and public funding for education? Why not go right to the promised land?
First, it is going to take a while for large swaths of the public to let go of government schooling. No one alive today remembers when the norm was not compulsory education and attending public school. Many people simply assume that education equals public schooling, and the idea of choosing a school—much less having a full free market—is almost incomprehensible. And even if the concept were widely embraced, relatively few people have actual experience with choosing schools, at least other than buying a home in a “good district.” A transition period—during which people change their mindsets from passive recipients of schooling to active seekers of it—is inevitable.
Second, practical matters need to be addressed. Unless a move to full freedom sends most people to online options—and even those would need some time to scale up—private schools do not have enough seats to suddenly accommodate tens of millions of new students. Many public schools would convert to private, but that too would require adapting to autonomy over curriculum, hiring, and myriad other functions. Moreover, district and state education employees would no longer be needed in the much leaner private system and would need to be transitioned out.
Public schooling is inconsistent with a free society. Like so much in opposition to liberty, the system is undergirded largely by fear—fear of difference, fear of economic failure. The libertarian realizes that those fears are unfounded and that only educational freedom is consistent with a harmonious, prosperous nation grounded in liberty.
Benjamin Rush, “Thoughts upon the Mode of Education Proper in a Republic,” in Essays on Education in the Early Republic, ed. Frederick Rudolph (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1965), p. 9. ↩
Rush, “Thoughts upon the Mode of Education,” pp. 13–14. ↩
Noah Webster, “On the Education of Youth in America,” in Essays on Education in the Early Republic, ed. Frederick Rudolph (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1965), p. 77. ↩
See, for example, Horace Mann, “Lecture IV: What God Does, and What He Leaves for Man to Do, in the Work of Education,” Life and Works of Horace Mann, vol. 2 (Boston: Horace B. Fuller, 1868), pp. 212–15. ↩.
Horace Mann, “Report for 1848,” in Life and Works of Horace Mann, vol. 3 (Boston: Horace B. Fuller, 1868), pp. 691–93. ↩
Quoted in John W. Meyer et al., “Public Education as Nation‐Building in America: Enrollments and Bureaucratization in the American States, 1870–1930,” American Journal of Sociology 85, no. 3 (November 1979): 601. ↩
David B. Tyack, The One Best System: A History of American Urban Education (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1974), p. 178. ↩
Ellwood P. Cubberley, Changing Conceptions of Education (Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin, 1909), pp. 15–16. ↩