Parents or Government/Unions: Who Should Control Our Children’s Educational Decisions?

What greater gift can we give our children than a fair shot at living the American Dream? The important contribution of a quality education to having that fair shot led me to write:

While hard work alone can make the difference, sometimes it is not enough to make the American Dream come alive for every American citizen. That leads to the final enabling component to the American Dream: access to a quality education. Such access is the great equalizer, ensuring that all Americans have a decent starting position as they enter adulthood.

But, in spite of well-documented performance problems in American public education, the educational establishment continues to actively resist change – even if that means blocking citizens from living the American Dream and putting our country at a long-term competitive disadvantage in a knowledge-based global economy.
In that context, the March 2005 edition of “The School Choice Advocate,” published by the Militon and Rose D. Friedman Foundation, has a very relevant article. Not yet accessible on-line, here is an excerpt from an article entitled “Celebrating 50 Years” by Robert Enlow:

In 1955, Milton Friedman wrote an essay that articulated an old idea of liberty in a fresh and innovative way.
The idea went something like this. Elementary and secondary education in America is in serious trouble because government has combined the appropriate role of financing the general education of children with the inappropriate role of owning and operating schools. It would be much better and more equitable, he argued, if the government would “give each child, through his parents, a specified sum [voucher] to be used solely in paying for his general education…The result would be a sizable reduction in the direct activities of government, yet a great widening in the educational opportunities open to our children.”

…Thomas Jefferson is considered by many to be the philosophical originator of public schooling…
Jefferson would be appalled to see our current system of public schooling, which through its combination of government financing and government administration destroys individual freedom…Consider his 1816 letter to Joseph Caball who was working to establish a common school system in his state:

“But if it is believed that these elementary schools will be better managed by the Governor and Council, the commissioners of the literary fund, or any other general authority of the government, than by parents within each ward, it is a belief against all experience…What has destroyed liberty and the rights of man in every government which has ever existed under the sun? The generalizing and concentrating all cares and powers into one body.”

It is this thinking – that individual freedom should be the cornerstone of publicly funded education – which keeps Jefferson in line with other thinkers of his time, Locke, Smith, and Paine, and which ultimately puts him at odds with the undoubted father of modern public schooling, Horace Mann.
The critical point to note here is that a key difference between public schooling then and now is one of freedom and control. Prior to the rise of the common schools the emphasis was on the importance of education for a stable, democratic society and the need for some public funding for schooling, all the while expecting parental autonomy and control. But because he linked in a clear way the government financing of education with the government administration and operation of schools, common schools as envisaged by Mann simply turned on its head Jefferson’s notion that individual freedom was the best way to avoid tyranny, ultimately destroying parental autonomy.
What happened to schooling in the period after is a testament to the folly of this idea. Rapid centralization ensued, with schooling becoming increasingly bureaucratic and with attendance being compulsory based on where you live. Education moved from a parent/child customer centered focus to a school/state education provider centered focus.
Schooling simply became a monopoly – a government-run monopoly – and, like all other monopolies, service deteriorated to unacceptable levels, costs skyrocketed and parents have been devalued to the point that they have little to no control in how their children are educated…
In the 1980’s, President Reagan’s administration proposed school voucher and tax credit programs. In 1987, the state of Iowa passed an educational tax credit program…The next and arguably biggest breakthrough came in the state of Wisconsin in 1990, when the state enacted a voucher program targeting low-income parents in the city of Milwaukee…Since 1995, we have seen an explosion in the number of publicly funded school choice programs enacted at the state level. Voucher programs have been enacted in Ohio, Florida, Utah and the District of Columbia, and tax credit programs have been enacted in Arizona, Illinois, Florida and Pennsylvania. Today, over 500,000 children and families exercise educational options that were not readily available 15 years ago.
Despite the trend towards parental autonomy and power, we still have a long way to go.
First, the government school behemoth is still in charge. As evidenced by the fact that, according to the National Center for Education Statistics, spending on education more than tripled between 1960 and 2000, it still wholly controls the flow of tax dollars…as Milton and Rose Friedman pointed out in 1996, education is still in practice controlled “by professional bureaucrats and teachers’ unions. Teachers’ unions and school administrators have become skilled at managing the political process by which public officials are named, laws that govern schools are enacted, and budgets are established.”
Second, the school choice movement itself must not lose sight of its ultimate goal, namely the freedom of all parents, regardless of income or other criteria, to choose the school that is best for their child, whether that school is public or private. Understandably, there has been a great deal of time spent targeting voucher and tax credit programs to poorer families or to children that need the most help. This is laudable. But liberty should not be constrained by income or skin color or by the fact you might have red hair.
In the end, it is imperative to remember that what we are talking about is a question of who controls education: parents or government. And so long as the government both finances education and administers schools it can’t help but exert its power over parents.
…the Friedmans’ voucher idea…is an idea of liberty that is consistent with our nation’s founding, that has withstood the test of time and that continually points us in the direction of individual freedom and parent power.

You can read key word definitions and frequently asked questions about school choice here.
You can read some of the literature about school choice here and here.
Think about who has more at stake in this debate about the direction of public education in America: Moms and Dads OR faceless, nameless and unaccountable government bureaucrats and teachers’ unions?
Who would you trust more to to make the right decisions for our children? It’s quite clear when you think about it.

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