I am a former educator who has experience in public, charter, and private school systems.
I oppose compulsory education. I oppose all public schools. I oppose charter schools, most—but not all—voucher systems and education saving accounts, and even state accreditation of schools.
There are four central thrusts that I can break my reasoning into.
First, I am a philosophically minded man of letters and would appreciate a more enlightened society. We would have a better educated population with fewer schools, not more.
Second, I am concerned with the moral hazard of the current school system. It harms at least as many of its “beneficiaries” as it helps.
Third, the economic conditions of the existing educational order are unsustainable and actively detrimental to taxpayers, and several of its “beneficiaries.”
Fourth, I am a member of the philosophical old guard. The state-education complex has become a tool of social progressives, and is the greatest threat to a libertarian and/or conservative social order.
For today, however, I will examine state education and its consequences from a broad perspective. Later, I will break down the central thrusts of my four main points and examine the reasons I believe state education is inferior to other options in each of these cases.
My Disillusionment in Education
My experience with the education system is fairly broad. As a student, I attended home-schools, private religious schools, public schools, public university, and private university.
In short, I have experienced all the “traditional” education methods, especially when one considers that my public university’s education program included a quasi-apprenticeship through student-teaching.
I was a solid student—not always the best, but usually in the top one or two percent of any program I attended. It is common to smear the adversaries of the current school system as uneducated or anti-intellectual.
However, I have a terminal degree (an MFA) and positive experiences from my education. These result from a mixture of my personality and motivations for learning. There are things I can complain about, and will bring up later in this book, but the system (usually) works for those who would choose to follow in my footsteps. Further, I am an autodidact, reading broadly and beyond popular mass-market works in other fields of study beyond my actual degree (economics, history, politics, and philosophy are my primary focuses—I enjoy the humanities).
I am not concerned, however, with people like me. The concern I have with education lies for those outside my academic intellectual caste. Though I am sufficiently heterodox that I have likely left that caste behind, I could have kept my head down and had a comfortable, if unfulfilling, career.
Regarding the charge of anti-intellectualism, which I have had leveled against me from time to time, it is both absurd and correct. My philosophical bent and experiences lead me to reject both positivist and postmodern philosophies which dominate the modern intellectual milieu.
But saying that the currently reigning intellectual caste has lost its way is not the same as saying that learning and enlightenment are unworthy goals, as much as the current ivory tower elitists may conflate these endeavors to protect their own sinecures.
From an Educator’s Perspective
Between my university student-teaching and my career, I gained first-hand experience with public, parochial, and charter schools. These have key similarities, because of shared origins from within the same educational paradigm.
I have seen both highly successful and failing schools. Most of my co-workers have been good, with valid complaints that the failures they have to deal with are systemic rather than their own fault.
The systemic issues are what I will focus on, though I will mention their relationship to teachers when they arise. There will always be bunglers and experts, and the quality of education is not, contrary to prevailing myths, purely a product of the strengths of educators.
The first and most important similarity between all schools in the modern day is their structure, which is partly drawn from the talent pool available to them. Regardless of whether schools must legally hire certified educators, the current situation certainly encourages them to hire licensed teachers who have university degrees. To do otherwise invites liability concerns, and many dramas related to “unqualified” teachers.
Education is an orthodox field.
There are dissidents within education. There are alternative systems, such as Montessori or classical education.
These will never achieve prominence unless something changes.
Alternative schools must recruit primarily from the ranks of graduates who have not had direct experience with their particular styles. They can, of course, try to work with student-teachers or create internships or other work-study programs, but these impose an expense on these institutions which are already smaller than their peers.
In short, the mainstream education pipeline creates a large cohort of teacher candidates only suitable for the mainstream school system, which operates under a behavioral and progressive framework. I refer to this as the Prussian system, because the early Progressive Era movements created schools recognizable to moderns, but contemporary schools look a lot different from the old ones, and this shift carries over to the teachers graduated by universities.
For instance, the critical pedagogy movement, founded by Paolo Freire, has inserted many assumptions and other materials into both state-funded and private universities, including social-emotional learning and critical race theory initiatives. We will leave aside criticisms of these methods here, but this orthodoxy leads to some self-perpetuating issues.
For instance, taking the system seriously to task on account of its failures to deliver would involve a reckoning for those who have pushed some pedagogical strategies that have become clear political issues—like the use of whole language instead of phonics-based instruction—despite a lack of benefits to students from the policies adopted by the education system.
In short, the vast majority of teachers learn the strategies and methods of the existing Prussian system, with its behavioral (as in the work of Skinner) assumptions and progressive outlook. Even alternative school systems must deal with a workforce that inherits these assumptions and strategies, to the exclusion of others.
There is another consideration here. So far, we have simply looked at the feasibility of alternative schools from social and practical considerations, but there is another problem.
The state—which often works closely with teachers’ unions—has its own interests in education. As a result, school standards and accreditation will reflect the desires of the government.
While I will outline this further once I move into an analysis of the left-wing orientation the current education system imposes, it is important to consider a few things here.
First, the government determines standards based on interest group action. While these interests include parents, they also include educators, employers, and political activists.
Educators, for reasons already stated, want to make sure that standards uphold the current orthodoxy—regardless of their usefulness and the student outcomes they produce. Further, they look to ensure that teachers do not work more than they already do (which, to their defense, is a complaint with some basis in reality) and have certain protections that may not really be ideal.
There is discussion over whether unions represent educators or their own interests. Practically, many teachers do not align with their unions. They either do not care or do not agree with the unions’ goals.
However, the unions do have a particular focus, which is to exclude and limit all non-public schools. The large national teachers’ unions have aligned themselves only with public schools, and only public schools directly operated by the state—not public charter schools.
The teacher unions’ primary cause is not only to protect the orthodoxy of the educational establishment (to the benefit of their members) but also to forbid all alternatives using the force of law.
Unions typically oversee campaigns for standards in education, and since they also publish journals, hold conferences, and speak at universities, they have a massive influence over the industry.
Employers benefit from education as a free good to them—since most education systems draw from property taxes, rather than companies’ coffers through direct taxation. In short, they have an incentive to direct standards so that they produce more ideal workers.
Of course, this particularly represents the interests of politically connected employers.
Political activists also fund educational lobbyists. This can go either way, but the prevailing trend of political activity in education is leftward. There are efforts, such as those of Corey DeAngelis, to secure greater freedom in education—traditionally a libertarian and conservative goal—but they represent a small portion of the influence and struggle for support against much larger aligned forces of academia, unions, and teachers.
Further, the more conservative movements in education, contrary to the allegations of their detractors, rarely have a positive vision. Even banning certain tenets of the current educational orthodoxy, such as social-emotional learning and critical race theory, overlooks the fact that the rest of standards and accreditation will still accomplish progressive goals.
Under the state accreditation and standards regime, education occurs within a structure that is artificially imposed on it, rather than the system which it originally used.
Licensure is often a joke. The tests required either lean toward ensuring orthodoxy in pedagogical practices and in politically sensitive fields such as history or are immaterial to teachers’ competence.
For instance, the test that I took to become certified as an English teacher included, for instance, the authors of certain works.
Even if we accept the notion that much “educational science” is nonsense, there is an important concept called “depth of knowledge” which is an attempt to measure how well someone can actually apply their skills.
Knowing what Jane Austen wrote (not the actual example from my exam) does not correlate with any pedagogical skills. It does not even require any understanding of what Jane Austen wrote, other than a cursory glance at her biography!
The degree component of licensure is, unfortunately, subject to massive “grade inflation.” The actual phenomena at hand here are a little more complicated—and I will discuss them later—but the actual requirements to earn a degree have fallen so that relying on a degree is more of a measure of socio-economic background (i.e. having money and time to go to school) than competence.
Practical requirements to spend time in the classroom are the best, and probably only significantly useful, metric for educational licensing, but this just measures the experience that a would-be teacher could get by working alongside other teachers—licensed or not. And since time as a paraprofessional or other educational assistant (these enjoy lesser licensing requirements) may not count for these, it requires a student-teaching arrangement or prior experience in the field.
The notion that licensure is required for safety relies on false assumptions.
First, it is typically a legal obligation for all schools to require teachers to pass background checks (and parents would refuse to send students to schools that do not vet their teachers). This system is supposed to keep out those who have questionable histories.
This usually works—in fact, being under criminal investigation for any felony and many misdemeanors is enough to revoke the clearance required to work as an educator in my home state of Arizona. People will fall through the cracks, of course, but this is true of any system and the problem here lies with the background check, not licensure, process.
However, there is a dirty secret—it is hard to revoke certification based on disciplinary or performance issues. The easiest way is breach of contract. Here, the teacher agrees to work for a school year, leaves mid-year, and loses their certification.
With something like sexual assault against a student, however, revoking the license requires an actual criminal process to happen. Unions fight this for their members, and the result is that it is more common for teachers to be swept under the rug than to be penalized for their actions.
Any criminal or civil damages hit the school district, not individuals within it, at least with public schools.
This is one reason charter and private schools are automatically superior, because they bear the risk themselves. They face their own issues in this area, especially because it is much better to have problems quietly disappear than to have them make the evening news, but they have to avoid risky employment decisions or they will cease to exist.
The Current Options
Right now, there are really four options for education in the United States. Note that I am leaving out certain variations.
For instance, a student could drop out of high-school and get a GED, or they could engage in various programs during their secondary school program (for instance, partnering with a local community college or technical school) that are increasingly common but do not replace the entire kindergarten to twelfth grade (referred to as K-12) pipeline used in the US.
Likewise, I am not considering university education, which is almost all structurally identical across the US. Likewise, technical programs that cannot apply for the current compulsory education obligations are outside my scope—though I consider these ideal for many learners.
Instead, I am considering the funding sources and organizational structure of each of the schooling methods that govern the full K-12 spectrum.
Public schools, sometimes referred to accurately, but derisively, as government schools, involve a local or state-appointed school district. The district runs the school or schools under its jurisdiction per local or state law.
Public schools receive taxpayer funds and are free to attend to students, though they may legally charge for some extracurricular activities.
Public schools must adhere to all federal and state laws and receive their funding directly from federal and state taxes, though they can raise money in a variety of ways depending on the rules in their jurisdiction and many receive additional grant and private funding. This is a little-mentioned way unions and left-wing political groups influence schools, since a grant to implement critical race theory, for instance, may bring thousands of dollars to a classroom.
One thing to note is that public schools have limited autonomy both for teachers and administrators. This can include the stipulations attached to federal grants, like Title I or Title IX funding for particular programs, or can simply be a product of regulations and laws.
A significant portion of money goes into compliance efforts, and the Department of Education has interfered with disciplinary procedures at schools in the past.
A key point here is that public schools cannot turn away students.
The primary difference between a public school and a charter school is the organization that runs them.
Instead of a school district, the charter is a permit for an independent school board to run one or more schools within a state, though some charter school networks are interstate or even international enterprises.
Charter schools are bound by the same requirements as public schools and may be eligible for federal grants. When I worked at a charter school, half my job was to provide reading intervention services under Title I alongside my normal English classes.
The two big defining qualities of charter schools that set them apart are that they are schools of choice and that they can turn away students because of capacity (but not arbitrarily).
As schools of choice, charter schools compete for students. This provides an incentive to focus on the services they provide in a way that many public schools do not. Because attendance at a charter school is voluntary (that is, those who go to it could always choose to return to a public school), it has some additional pull, and charter schools are more likely to serve a special purpose.
Sometimes, a special purpose is required for a charter to be granted (e.g. college preparation or arts), but this depends on local laws. Often, a charter school gets less funding per student than a public school, though this has been changing in recent years, as dissatisfaction with teacher unions and public schools has led to more difficulty fighting legislation to equalize funding.
In many jurisdictions, the local public schools get a fraction of the money they would have received from students who opted into charter schools, nominally to cover extracurricular activities and services (like speech therapy), though large charter schools usually offer these.
The second defining quality of charter schools is that they can turn away students because of a lack of capacity. Public schools cannot do this, meaning that charter schools have a built-in class size limit as an additional advantage against the public schools.
However, charter schools still may not discriminate against students based on academic performance and may even be less likely to expel or suspend students (even for valid disciplinary issues) for fear of having an audit or investigation result from unfriendly state regulatory agencies.
Thomas Sowell—a Chicago-school economist and protégé of Milton Friedman—has written at length about the comparative advantage students in a public charter school have against their peers in a standard public school. Although I fall to the right of Sowell economically and I have skepticism about the public choice school of thought, I would almost always prefer a charter school to a mainstream public school for my family.
Contrary to the initial impression, not all private schools are parochial, though the functional differences are largely in funding.
Of course, the archetypal private school in most peoples’ imagination is the Catholic school. These are a near replica of the public school system, only with more rigorous standards, prayer, and Mass.
Private schools must outperform the local free alternatives in order to survive on the market, so they are usually superior. There are a few niche cases, such as specialized religious schools, that parents may prefer because of non-academic considerations.
For instance, private schools have more ability to expel students who misbehave.
Although stereotypically elite, many private schools offer scholarships—statistically about a quarter of all private school students receive some financial assistance.
State tax credits and educational saving funds may also support students, and a growing movement to have money follow students means private schools are much more obtainable than they used to be. However, private schools still require investments from most parents hoping to send their children there, and the usual limitations on staffing and resources that plague the education system more broadly still exist.
There are the usual issues in any school with private schools, but they can offer superior outcomes to the public alternatives. Parochial religious schools and secular private schools both have excellent performance overall and often operate on a lower budget per student than public schools.
Private schools must still receive accreditation and test their students similarly to public schools, at least in most jurisdictions.
Homeschooling is an increasingly popular method of instruction, especially after the COVID pandemic has led many parents to work from home and have more flexibility to interact with their family.
Although many perceive homeschooling as the domain of religious fundamentalists and social rejects, the performance outcomes of homeschooling usually exceed those of public schools.
Further, one criticism leveled at homeschoolers is that parents do not have the knowledge of teachers—but content area knowledge is available in pre-packaged curriculum format and the pedagogical skills of most teachers have eroded over the generations by a focus on less useful social-economic learning and ideological indoctrination in the university system replacing useful classroom practices.
As someone who worked in an interventionist role (e.g. in small-groups) and alongside special educators doing one-on-one and small-group instruction, I can attest to the fact the level of pedagogical training needed for a homeschool-style scenario is low.
Passion, drive, and the willingness to research strategies to help learners with difficulties carry the day, and a parent with a high-school diploma could probably do as much for their kid as I could with my university degree and classroom teaching experience.
This is important to consider because the general argument against homeschooling is that parents do not have the resources to support special-needs or at-risk children. Barring the situations where a specialist is required for things like occupational or speech therapy (which can be administered within or outside the public school system), there are very few cases where a parent would be at a disadvantage.
For instance, a parent who wants their child to learn English but does not speak English would probably have to send their child to a language school or tutor, but they could still home-school other subjects.
In short, the strongest argument against home-schooling is the availability of parents for their children. Government has caused this, perhaps deliberately.
Taxation to pay for rampant public spending, inflation, the perceived “free” price tag of public schools, and costs of living imposed through over-regulation have made it more difficult, though not impossible, to subsist as a household on a single-earner income, especially in urban and “progressive” areas.
When combined with cohorts and learning pods, homeschooling is probably the best method of educating students, especially with policy changes to let money follow students to home-schools (as a tax rebate for parents who homeschool) or to reduce the tax overhead from bloated public-school systems.
The Teacher Shortage
One common criticism of the education system in America is a teacher shortage. When I was in college, I heard an oft-repeated anecdote that the average teacher remains in the profession three years after leaving college. I don’t know if it’s true, but if it is I contributed to that statistic myself.
The problems that lead to a teacher shortage are not as simple as the unions and politicians would like you to believe. Funding is not the primary problem.
The first problem is that the schools are inherently ideological, and dissent is rather dangerous. Even more liberal teachers express concerns with being perceived as anti-union in public schools, and when curriculum often includes materials that include a political agenda (like using Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States) it can send a message that conservatives, libertarians, or other non-progressives are unwelcome.
This is not entirely accidental, as those familiar with Paulo Freire and other critical pedagogists’ work might be aware. For instance, I have little illusion that I could work in education again—even in a relatively friendly private school environment—due to my political writings.
The second is that the school system has a supply/demand mismatch, and the demand is too great. A mixture of subsidies and moves to encourage degrees as a starting point for even non-academic careers (such as working in trades), to say nothing of the compulsory nature of education even when the tangible benefits to students are lacking, has placed tremendous strain on the system.
Unfortunately, there’s a vicious cycle here. Over-burdened teachers drop out or pursue greener pastures elsewhere, and those who remain carry the slack.
Another problem is that the system often makes decisions that ruin teachers’ efforts. The mass shutdowns during COVID, while lauded by a neurotic subset of teachers, were also absolutely devastating to morale for those teachers who actually enjoy the classroom instruction element of the job and led to massive back-slides in student performance that further demoralized those who watched their hard work go to waste as achievement was lost.
Pay is usually not an issue for teachers—though it can depend on the location and type of school. Educators for the younger grades are typically paid less than secondary-level educators, despite similar educational requirements (and very few arguments that their jobs are easier from those who have seen kindergarteners in a classroom).
In high cost of living areas, teachers can struggle to make ends meet, and there can be class boundaries between teachers and both low socio-economic status students and high socio-economic students. Teachers generally do not make household-supporting incomes, though a married teacher or a teacher with a side-job may be able to live comfortably.
This can lead to further brain-drain from the industry. My exit from teaching was spurred on in part by a freelance writing opportunity—I made more money before and after school each weekday than I was making during the school day from the comfort of my own home, though I still miss the classroom environment.
Against Compulsory Education
A simple solution to the current woes would be to reduce or absolutely remove the compulsory element of education.
There would be consequences of this, of course, especially in the short-term. In practice, we are unlikely to see too much of a major shift downward in performance.
First, the initial complaint would be that students freed from compulsory education would hang out with other delinquents.
But the compulsory nature of the current education system means that students are compelled to associate with peers—even peers who engage in illicit activities outside school grounds. Some of these behaviors occur even within schools surreptitiously or under lenient rules surrounding explusion and suspensions).
Statistically, the old adage that one bad apple spoils a barrel is an exaggeration, but there is a truth to it. Disruptive students measurably reduce their peers’ performance and cause rippling disciplinary and behavioral issues that can include criminal activity.
Besides, all the lack of police-backed compulsion does is make it the responsibility of the parent, rather than the state, to oversee children. If the parent cannot compel a child to attend school, they are unlikely to compel a child to keep good associates outside school hours.
To argue that there would be more problems with youth without forcing them into a system that has not been proven to solve any problems is absurd and asinine, and actively hurts all other students and, in many cases, those who would have to be compelled.
Second, proponents of compulsory education claim that students would lose out on educational opportunities.
But abolishing compulsory education does not abolish schools. Students who desired to learn could still attend schools.
And those who chose not to attend schools could still take advantage of educational materials, learning to the level of their capacity and desire. The internet has made countless educational materials available for free, including college level courses from prestigious institutions.
And many students find themselves trapped in schools that have a long history of failing their charges. The compulsory nature of these systems makes them little more than prisons where youth are incarcerated.
The removal of labor laws that prevent children from working in low-risk positions would allow more opportunity for these students. Despite what critics claim, working is a form of education. Unlike the various academic or technical programs, working is a course of learning I would encourage all youth, without any distinction for background or capabilities, to engage in!
There are also those prodigies who are so high performing that they could begin a career or start a business, not just work for others to learn discipline and initiative, in their youth. They should be free to do so without the encumbrance of the current system.
The current system usually makes concessions by making compulsory education a question of attainment, rather than age, but there are places where this is more difficult and organizational inertia tends to slow down prodigies rather than allowing them to pass through the system at their optimal rate. It also requires general proficiency, which can mean that a genius in one area moves with their cohort in a single subject—thus prolonging their education when they could supplement their other activities with a single course.
It may be objected that children are not ready for the adult world, which is partly true. However, the school system is not a magical realm where the forces of evil are barred access by stickers on the windows.
Other than family members, educators and fellow students (usually, but not always, from higher age cohorts) are the top perpetrators of child abuse.
Even ignoring the idealistic claptrap about school itself being abuse—though similarities to incarceration are not simply a corollary of compulsory education—the unfortunate truth is that schools represent a major avenue for perpetrators of crimes against children.
I am not trying to create a new Satanic panic. These issues would exist anywhere—children in the workplace would be vulnerable to exploitation, as would children free to go about their own activities during the day—but a serious examination of the issues cannot include the assumption that schools are a zero-risk environment.
A particular warning I would give, from someone who worked in the system, is that public schools in particular have abysmal track records of separating perpetrators from other potential victims. Part of this is due to the shift from discipline to therapeutics.
When a high-school boy who gropes a girl is viewed as an example of impulse control developmental disorders with sexual characteristics instead of a predator, and the Department of Education’s least restrictive environment policy calls for such students to remain in the general population, this creates a ticking time-bomb in the name of equity.
I have been lucky to have witnessed only one situation of this sort during my time as an educator. Mandatory reporting laws have some benefit in ensuring that these events wind up going to the proper authorities, but victims’ families are often left unnotified and districts like to avoid publicity.
Since many of my friends and associates have backgrounds in social work or education, I can attest to the fact that everyone has at least one anecdote like mine. The actual statistics on crime in schools should be a part of the conversation about compulsory education, if for no other reason than the fact that the overburdened system lets too many cases slip through the cracks.
Without yet wading into my primary thrusts at dissecting the education system in America, I have given an overview of the system, the ways it currently manifests, and some of the larger issues.
My goal has been to give an illustration of what works, what is dysfunctional, and systemic issues not clearly correlated with one of the system’s main issues. Going forward, I will dive into each of those in depth.