Thursday, March 09, 2006

Abolishing Compulsory Attendance

The Future of Freedom Foundation:

"To anyone who thinks that charter schools and tuition vouchers are among the better options for improving America's public education system, Sheldon Richman's proposals in Separating School and State: How to Liberate America's Families may come as a shock. For Richman, the concept of public education ('government schools,' as he calls them) itself is the problem. Given this view, the 'future of education, and of America as a free society, depends on the liberation of the American family from the grip of the public school.'"

If we wish to improve education, Richman boldly asserts, we must abolish compulsory attendance laws. In addition to being undesirably coercive, compulsory attendance laws result, Richman claims, in the state's defining what school is. In this way the state controls internal elements of education like accreditation, teacher certification, academic standards, and curricula. Repeal of compulsory attendance laws would remove grounds for the state's involving itself in defining education.

Dependence on taxation

An additional fundamental aspect of public schooling is taxation. Richman believes that "public education's dependence on taxation is · the key characteristic of the system" and that is should be eliminated altogether. For one thing, compulsory funding of schools, which guarantees income to the institution and to its administrators without regard to the quality of service provided, does not foster responsiveness of administrators to the "consumers." Because the compulsory funding issue is fundamental to the nature of public schools, Richman insists that effective reform must begin with abolishing school taxes.

Richman insists that the current plethora of education reformers are en masse ignoring the essence of the problem, that is, that the very concept of the public school is flawed. Reforms that overlook this basic "fact" will not go far. Richman cites as an example the movement for charter schools (independent schools run on a local level), saying that it will have only limited success because these schools, whatever they are called, are still public schools and:

An autonomous public school is a contradiction in terms. · an oxymoron. · No school can be autonomous as long as it is financed by taxation, filled by students compelled to be there, and subject to union, civil rights, and other regulations imposed by the state and federal governments. No school can be autonomous if it can't go out of business. And no one is proposing that for the public schools.

Another futile reform measure according to Richman, is tuition vouchers. Tuition vouchers will indeed give parents and children a greater degree of choice but, in and of themselves, will not be able to elicit significant progress in the private education industry. Government will still be controlling and defining "school" because government money (the vouchers) will always come with stipulations as to how it can be spent.

Along with his critical appraisal of specific reform proposals, Richman attacks the perennial notion that increased spending will improve education. He reminds us of what we have already discovered: "There is no known correlation between spending and improvement in educational quality in the public schools. · Most of the increase has gone into bureaucracy. The public schools do not use money well."

Urging us to step boldly into a new order of existence, Richman unequivocally advocates removing all obstacles to a new and improved way of educating our children:

With school taxes and compulsory attendance laws out of the way, education entrepreneurs would have free rein to offer alternatives. Anyone could open a school. There should be no regulation regarding curriculum or teacher qualification, which are impediments to entrepreneurial discovery. · The public war over values would finally be over, because no one would be compelled to support beliefs he did not hold. Parents would be free to bring their children up in their own philosophy or religion - and choose their schools accordingly.

More advocacy than scholarship

Although appealing, Separating School and State is an exercise more in advocacy than in scholarship. Although the author presents theoretical arguments and supports them with citations from political philosophy, some of the arguments are sketchy and fail to mention credible counter objections. Calls for revolution should be accompanied by more discussion that Richman allows for in this book.

The author's confident recommendation that we abolish compulsory attendance laws is an example that comes to mind. Richman's argument against compulsory attendance laws fails to mention the social good that such laws have historically effected. As recently noted by Myron Weiner ["Children in Labor: How Sociocultural Values Support Child Labor," THE WORLD & I, February 1995, p. 371], compulsory attendance laws were instituted by many developing nations in part a way to ameliorate the lives of children who would otherwise be exploited. While it might be wise to advocate that we reconsider the utility of such laws at this particular time, Richman's sweeping condemnation of compulsory attendance laws seems a bit extreme.

For those who, despite misgivings, might like to see Richman's proposal s put to the test, there are still some important questions that the author has not considered. Richman's libertarian, antigovernment stance seems to prevent him from considering what benefit government might be to education and how such benefits might be abridged or lost in a world of completely private education. One aim of public education, past and present, for example has been to guarantee education for the poor (regardless of whether this was part of an attempt at social manipulation). Richman does not suggest how, with completely privatized education, the poor would have access to education. Another important issue is "special education." Richman neglects to mention how special education needs will be met if government does not help fund education. But comprehensive answers to these and similar questions need to be offered if Richman is to convince anyone to join his revolution.

Finally, the author's reluctance (it is an admittedly theoretical book) to provide hard figures, facts, and calculations to demonstrate the practicality of his suggestions is an impediment to eliciting conviction. Richman's claim, for example, that "most people" could pay for their own children's education if they could just keep their tax money is oversimplified. Abolishing or reducing taxes would indeed leave more money in people's pockets, but the amount will vary according to income. For many, that amount will not equal the cost of educating one or more children.

Richman's general thesis, nevertheless, remains attractive and is certainly worth considering. Perhaps it is time for a thorough overhaul of the U.S. educational system. Although the underpinnings of public education might not, after all, be as evil as Richman would have us believe, perhaps they have fulfilled their original purpose and outlived their usefulness.

Congressmen (such as Sen. Phil Gramm) are admitting that federal involvement in education has exacerbated problems rather than helped. The secretary of the Department of Education, Richard Riley, and his predecessors William Bennett and Lamar Alexander, are all on record as favoring abolishing the Department of Education. This is certainly a start in the direction that Richman is indicating and, given this general atmosphere, Richman should be guaranteed a receptive audience.


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