A student of mine—let’s call him Jackson— is trapped in public education. He shuns school and receives many tickets for his truancy, but the law ushers him back in over and over again, regardless. According to the UN Declaration of Human Rights, he has the right to a free and compulsory education. So, when he has to attend, he brings nail clippers, prescription pills and cash. He’s there to make a profit.
He’s told me before that he just wishes he could work. He has been labeled challenged, incapable, a troublemaker, even criminal—he spends weeks of each year in suspension—and yet he just wants a respectable job. Instead, he must attend school. He is forced into a building that he abhors, with teachers and peers who look down on him, and is chastised or even fined when he opts to skip class. Rather than make honest wages at a full-time job, he is reduced to dealing drugs all day. Other students rightfully find school a foundational experience from which they learn invaluable life lessons, but I’m not talking about them. For students like Jackson, school is a fruitless endeavor, which breeds resentment.
Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird provides a similar example. Reflecting on her first grade with more insight than the average six-year-old, the protagonist, Scout Finch, quips that her lessons “were an endless project that slowly evolved into a Unit, in which miles of construction paper and wax crayon were expended by the State of Alabama in its well-meaning but fruitless efforts to teach me Group Dynamics.” Her teacher scolds her because her father, Atticus, taught her how to read. More importantly, a neighborhood farmer boy is stuck repeating the first grade and yet, only a chapter later, is able to carry on a conversation about agricultural economics with adults. Harper Lee forces her readers to consider just how useful public education is for this young boy—or for anyone.
The current graduation rate in America is only around 85%. What if the remaining 15% didn’t go to school? Every year, at least one student asks me, what happens if we all just walk out of the room and go home? I tell them that they’re technically free to; I won’t physically bar them. Though they will get both failing grades and notices of their unexcused absence will be sent to their homes.
This year, I overheard a student tell a friend that he needed to show up or he’d get a ticket. It seems odd that the current solution to chronic absence among these students—who are usually poor and have a preexisting distaste for school—is to fine them. Parents have even been jailed for their children’s persistent truancies.
In Lee’s novel, the farmer boy, Walter Cunningham, could probably maintain his own farmstead. Whether or not he knows his phonics, he understands the economic dynamics of the industry and has all the necessary skills. My student Jackson, though reluctant to finish his homework, is already a burgeoning entrepreneur, with many of the skills necessary to a businessman. Countless other students find themselves in similar situations. Might they be better off at jobs, instead of sitting through eight hours of school a day?
The libertarian idea that the government should provide for, but no longer compel, a student’s attendance in school until a set age is gaining in popularity. Those who defend the initiative cite the inefficiency of public schools and the potential for innovation in a deregulated environment. However, they never address what to do with the students who opt out: there is no recommended, secondary structure to channel a dropout’s energies productively.
In our current system, property taxes fund local public schools, to which students are assigned based upon where they live. They can also opt to pay to receive a private education or homeschooling, out of their private earnings, over and above what they pay in taxes. Those are their three options: public, private or home. Additional educational choices could provide the structure and redirection dropouts need.
Rather than compelling all students to attend a local school, tax money could provide each student with a voucher, to be spent as she and her parents see fit, on one of an expanded set of options. These would include public schools, with busing and additional services, such as meal programs. The vouchers could pay for traditional private and charter schools, but they could also be used for other designated options. They could go towards homeschooling or apprenticeships. Many jobs require more qualifications than a GED, but less than a college degree. The voucher could pay for the student’s on-the-job training. If the student gained acceptance early, it could be spent on college tuition. And—if they desire to work—let them choose to work instead.
There would then be five publicly guaranteed options provided to students until they’re eighteen, offering constructive alternatives for those who drop out: public school, private school, homeschooling, vocational training and work.
This would effectively shift the control of education from bureaucratic hands to the family. It would be incumbent upon both parents and children to choose the most fitting option.
Once a student turns eighteen, we already give her this choice. Vocational schools, apprenticeships, college and the workforce await young adults. With parental guidance, most make a wise decision and, if anything, too many choose the traditional route—only 27% of people work at a job related to their college major.
Given the current state of the US economy and its demand for intellectual capital, most students with career aspirations would find it beneficial to remain enrolled in either a traditional or home school until they reach eighteen. Ending compulsion and supplying educational vouchers wouldn’t leave students to their own adolescent whims: it would merely allow that 15% who cannot fit into a standard school system—and a few others who find more utility in a non-traditional option—a variety of choices.
If that’s too libertarian for the average person’s taste, the government could mandate a standardized test of minimum literacy and numeracy before the parent and student were given the right to choose a non-traditional option.
The first person to recommend compulsory education was Martin Luther, during the Reformation. Luther hoped that every man, woman, and child would be able to read the Bible for themselves. The idea first came to America through the Common School Movement, started by Horace Mann, who wrote that “education … beyond all other devices of human origin, is a great equalizer of conditions of men—the balance wheel of the social machinery.” He suggested state mandates to accomplish this.
The original motivations for compulsory education were democratic. Thomas Jefferson said of education, “no other sure foundation can be devised for the preservation of freedom and happiness.” Although Jefferson himself did not endorse compulsion, many felt that, in any representative government, it is incumbent upon the citizenry to be educated. If they are to make the decisions, they must understand what it is they’re deciding. An educated populace can vote for the politician with the better platform—so the argument runs.
Then there are social considerations. A short piece by the Brookings Institute lists a few: an educated populace is a more productive populace; in schools, students obtain crucial knowledge about such things as germ theory and learn preventive measures against diseases like HIV and malaria; adults can inculcate democratic values in the next generation. Essentially, the benefits of an educated populace are so expansive as to be nearly indefinable, so the law must mandate it.
Historically, these benefits have not been equally distributed across all demographics. The most frequent current objection to ending compulsory education is that it would mitigate against social justice. Since the majority of dropouts are black and Hispanic, making attendance voluntary would disproportionately harm those groups. Echoing Mann, Jonah Edelman and Randi Weingarten, the executive of Stand for Children and the president of the American Federation of Teachers have both expressed their concerns about the effect that privatization would have on “America’s great equalizer, public education.”
A legally compelled educational model has two advantages, we are told: it encourages healthy civic engagement and maintains social equality. These are weighty matters. However, it is incorrect to presume that a compulsory education is the best means to achieve these ends.
The presumption is that schools are an intrinsic good. Yet, advocates describe how public schools murder children’s spirits and lament the school-to-prison pipeline. It is often the strongest supporters of public education who most decry its negative effects on children, while they continue to advocate for its existence. Weingarten and Edelman write of our country’s need for schools to produce individuals who can read by third grade, despite the fact that the Annie E. Casey Foundation has found that 67% of students fail to achieve that benchmark and are merely shuffled through the system.
Major educational gains actually predated both publicly funded and compulsory schooling. In the early United States, literacy rates were quite high. Some scholars suggest that they might have been as high as 90% among men by 1800—women and freed slaves were also to enjoy similar rates of literacy as the century progressed. Our World in Data shows that literacy rates began to climb with the Enlightenment. The emphasis on education and the spread of texts following the development of the printing press caused a natural, upward trend in literacy rates, without the need for compulsion. Any increase following the establishment of compulsory education laws in the United States in 1852 is merely a continuation of a preexisting trend.
As for civic engagement, history shows that a well-educated populace does not guarantee any particular structure of government. Socialism (in the sense of Communism) has proven to be a system that leads to oppression, yet advocating socialism is a growing fad among American and European intellectuals. Communism and fascism did not develop in the illiterate farmlands, but in the halls of academia and were embraced by great minds like Jean Paul-Sartre and Ezra Pound, respectively.
Reformers variously point to lack of funding, pedagogical failures, poverty, culture, lack of discipline, excessive discipline, standardized testing, unionization and lack of unionization and a host of other issues to explain the current state of schools. They recommend merit-based pay, school choice, project-based learning, common core, accountability, neuroscience-informed pedagogy, and other reforms to offset these problems. But, despite countless reform initiatives, scores remain stagnant. Perhaps the question is bigger than reform. Perhaps it’s time the political structure of education itself changed.
Previous educational reforms have had positive results. Optional education was the norm until Prussia implemented the first compulsory education laws.
School choice movements provide vouchers, which students can use to attend their preferred institutions. The theory is that this system creates competition, bringing market pressures and the profit motive to bear on schools, and thereby incentivizes improvements, without the need for endless, top-down reforms and tax dollars. It has raised student achievement, saved money and even improved the mental health of students. Guaranteeing families a voucher to spend on education, but not compelling them to use it, would protect us against the societal ills of the pre-compulsion era, without the pathologies that required attendance creates.
There are already educational savings accounts in the United States, which “allow families to allocate a portion of their public school funding to a government-authorized savings account.” The money can be spent on online courses, homeschooling or even college tuition. Corey De Angelis, a policy analyst for Reason, argues that early research has shown them to be a superior option to school choice.
Some students would be worse off under the system I propose, however—especially those with neglectful or abusive parents. Currently, neglectful parents are compelled to place their children in an institution that provides them with food, safety and opportunities. Those with abusive parents receive the added attention that school personnel provide and the school staff can watch out for signs of abuse and report these to Child Protective Services. Under a voluntary system, a child might end up suffering in silence or even be forcibly kept home as a punishment.
These are serious concerns. But public schools already fail those with neglectful parents—as they often drop out. Under a voluntary system, the public option would still exist, providing meals and shelter if necessary, though those who could be forcibly kept at home would bear the greatest risks.
However, no system can possibly cover all externalities. Even now, children suffer in abusive homes, while schools are financially overstretched and test scores are stagnant. As tempting as it is to treat public school as a panacea for almost all social ills, this only contributes to the problem by overestimating the effect of public schooling. There are already other institutions—the CPS and countless charities—whose express purpose is to identify and aid children in abusive homes. Let them do their job and let schools focus on teaching.
This problem could be alleviated by mandating a regulatory minimum amount of school: for example, we might require that all students attend school until they achieve basic literacy and numeracy. This would guarantee a minimal education even to those from abusive homes.
However, the bigger question is: why must everyone receive a classic education? Aristotle and Plato believed that virtue and wisdom are the ideal pursuits of man. Kierkegaard considered the life of moral actions and contemplation to be superior to an aesthetic life filled with sensual pursuits. Our current educational model is based on these ideals. We believe in teaching children a little bit of everything, so that they might pursue knowledge and virtue and achieve the best life.
While I agree with the philosophers that reading is a worthy pursuit, I am reticent to force an intellectual lifestyle upon anyone. Luminaries like Walt Disney and Abraham Lincoln were able to achieve great things, despite having received only a stunted and intermittent formal education. Even functionally illiterate individuals can find success.
We have been trying to form a society based on Aristotelian ideals since universal education was conceived: a noble pursuit that has met with many failures. Perhaps it is time to expand the west’s educational goals: not every man need be a classically educated aristocrat or a philosopher king. If someone wants to be a moderately literate farmer or enter the family business young, perhaps it is time we let them.