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Monday, March 30, 2015

The Costs of Compulsory Education


Education elites and their political cronies have implemented countless initiatives aimed at reforming education. From the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965 to the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001, every plan put forth has resulted in nothing but inefficient expenditures, new layers of bureaucracy, and continuing declines in student achievement.

Education will only be reformed once parents and entrepreneurs are free to create real alternatives to the broken systems that exist today. Repealing compulsory-education laws and allowing parents to spend their education dollars freely should be the first steps in this direction.

Curiously, compulsory-education laws, which conscript children into state-regulated programs of study, are rarely discussed in the context of education reform; these laws' ostensibly benevolent nature allows demagogues to marginalize detractors and quell any attempt at serious discourse. This results in far-reaching regulations that control how private actors educate, and thus prohibits students from getting the individualized education they need.

The origin of compulsory education was characterized by oppression and forced assimilation. The modern movement was initially led by Martin Luther and the early Protestants, who sought to inculcate the masses with their religious views. Despotic Prussia was the first to enact laws at the national level, and compulsory education quickly became a weapon of choice for states seeking to destroy troublesome cultures and languages. In the United States, Massachusetts began enforcing mandatory attendance in 1852, and by 1918 every state had enacted similar legislation. The primary impetus for policymakers was to assimilate poor immigrant children; labor unions were also ardent supporters, as they sought to decrease the supply of labor in the workforce.

Current laws vary by state in details, but they are quite homogeneous in spirit. All require a minimum amount of instructional time (ranging from 160 to 186 days annually) at approved institutions. The majority of Americans between the ages of 5 and 18 are compelled to meet this requirement, with several states enforcing slightly more lenient laws. Although parents are free to pursue private education for their children, such options are almost always regulated by state governments.

There is likely a minority of children who benefit from compulsory education. While these outliers are by no means insignificant, the benefits accrued to them do not justify the aggregate effects imposed. To objectively evaluate the merits of such laws, we must fully account for all of their costs. Evaluating the effects on private forms of education is a good starting point.

Private schools and homeschools are rarely truly free-market alternatives to government-regulated education. By mandating attendance, states have a virtual stranglehold on the nature of private education. After all, in order to become a state-approved program of study at which "official" attendance is recognized, private actors are forced to satisfy some combination of curricular, reporting, and testing requirements.

In New York, for instance, homeschools must submit a notice of intent, maintain attendance records, file quarterly reports, and submit Individualized Home Instruction Plans for state approval. 
Additionally, students must successfully complete an annual assessment, including mandatory yearly standardized testing for grades nine and above. Perhaps most problematic, however, is its mandate that instruction given to a child must be "at least substantially equivalent to minors of like age or attainments at public schools," an edict clearly susceptible to abuse by state officials. This forces parents to comply with the belief systems of distant regulators who are free to define "substantially equivalent" as they see fit.

In the event that a parent's personal values oppose those of the state, the state's interests will ultimately prevail. This conflict prompted Murray Rothbard to note that at the heart of the compulsory-education debate is "the idea that children belong to the State rather than to their parents." If you attempt to challenge this notion, your child may be labeled "truant," and you may be subjected to fines, imprisonment, and the forcible return of their child to his or her zoned public school. Compulsory education thus imposes the state's definition of "education" on all parties falling under its auspices — even those pursuing a "private" course of study.

The state's monopoly on what defines "education" inevitably suppresses alternative views, thereby eliminating the complexity and diversity that should be prevalent in the market. Instead, a homogeneous system is used to serve heterogeneous students — yet another cost of compulsory education. READ MORE