My column for the Washington County Daily News is online. I had actually planned to write this column before I noticed that it’s School Choice Week. Serendipitous, don’t you think? Here you go:
When children and philosophers think about government, they will often romanticize the philosopher king or benevolent dictator as the ideal form of government. The idea of a wise, thoughtful, kind, and generous ruler making decisions to correct the wickedness of ignorant people for the benefit of the entire society is a tempting and alluring story. But history has shown us that such fantasies are best left on the pages of storybooks and treatises. They have little relevance in the actual history of mankind.
When our founders began on their journey of self-governance, it was largely a reaction to the tyranny of monarchical rule. As the spark of the Reformation helped ignite the flames of the Enlightenment, people began to consider the notion that they were not only capable, but entitled, to rule themselves. Such thoughts traveled to America and made the yoke of a distant monarchy weigh heavy. Finally, our founders cast off that yoke and began the great American experiment of self-governance, which continues to this day.
Our founders were students of history and recognized that one of the critical footings of successful self-governance is education. Indeed, only an educated people governing themselves could can off the abuses of tyranny so often inflicted by the cruel on the ignorant. As Thomas Jefferson wrote to William Jarvis in 1820, “I know no safe depository of the ultimate powers of the society but the people themselves; and if we think them not enlightened enough to exercise their control with a wholesome discretion, the remedy is not to take it from them, but to inform their discretion by education. This is the true corrective of abuses of constitutional power.”
In order to ensure that the people were educated enough to govern themselves, the founders viewed it as a duty of government to provide the people an education. Not deemed a responsibility of the federal government, our founders worked hard to enshrine the responsibility to provide an education into the state constitutions and local charters. It is an important ethos that has helped carry our nation into its third century of self-rule.
As a people, we have decided that it is critical for our republic to not only provide, but also to require that every citizen be educated. While rooted in the preservation of our liberty, compulsory universal education also has significant secondary consequences like raising the standard of living, enabling innovation and reducing poverty.
Whereas we all agree that it is in the best interests of our liberty and our general society to require and provide for universal education through our governments, there is less agreement about how that education should be delivered. At the root of the issue is that while we all generally agree that we should use our collective tax dollars to fund education, there is no rational basis for the government to own the means of delivering that education.
Education is one of the few areas of civil society where we insist that the government both fund and own the means of production for a public good. For example, in transportation, the government pays for infrastructure, but utilizes mostly private enterprises to complete the work. When it comes to welfare, we all generally agree that the government should pay for the indigent, but there are not government-owned grocery stores. In fact, there has been strong push back to President Donald Trump’s idea to provide packages of government groceries to welfare recipients instead of letting them choose their own groceries.
In the 21st century, the idea that the only way to provide a good education is for the government to own, manage and run the schools is as antiquated as the boys-only one-room school house. As our society speeds up, the rigidity and sluggishness of the public schools have struggled to keep pace. That fact, coupled with the frustration from some that some public schools have become centers of Neo-Marxist indoctrination instead of education, is part of what has led to a majority of states offering some form of school choice in the form of vouchers, education savings accounts and/or tax exemptions for private schools.
The heart of the school choice movement is the recognition that every child is precious and unique. Each child deserves the educational environment in which they can best thrive, and the child’s parents — not politicians — are the most informed, most interested and most invested in making decisions about their child’s education. For some parents, that choice may be a government-run school. For some it might be a religious school. For some it might be an online or private school. For some it might be homeschooling or an immersion school.
The point is that it is the parents who should decide and our societal obligation and commitment is to ensure that money, within reason, is not the sole determinant of educational choice. The rich already have all of these choices. School choice levels the field by ensuring that people of all economic means also have choices.
If an educated people is a free people, then we must free our education system to reach as many children as possible. Our founders were willing to tear down old societal structures to build a better future. Are we willing to do the same?