Saturday, December 09, 2006

Milton Friedman, the Founding Fathers, and Public Schools

A couple of weeks ago, Milton Friedman, the famous economist died. Friedman was no fan of public schools. In fact, he urged people to refer to them as "government schools" because, according to him, the term "public schools" gave a false impression. He said they're not public in the sense that you can use them without cost, since we pay for them in taxes. He also said that they aren't controlled by the public in any meaningful way.

Quite frankly, Friedman's thinking on this confuses me. Doesn't public generally mean that something has been paid for with taxpayer money? I mean, I've used "public" restrooms, and I always assumed they cost money to build, and I assumed that money came from the taxpayers. I used to play golf on "public" golf courses, and not only did taxpayers pay for those to be built, but the managers had the audacity to make me pay when I played, too!

Teachers at my school, and I would guess, many other "government" schools, would be surprised to know that our publics have no meaningful control over us. At my school, it is possible that if one parent calls with a complaint they won't get satisfaction, but that is certainly not always the case. And if two or more parents call with a reasonable complaint, administrators and teachers in our school will be falling all over themselves trying to meet their concerns. Like many other school districts, ours has been in constant need of passing referendums in order to make ends meet during the last several years, so there is the constant awareness that we must do whatever we can to keep the public happy. Do we manage to keep all of the people happy all of the time? Of course not. In a republic, that's something that doesn't happen. But the idea that public schools are oblivious to the wants of the public is ludicrous.

Friedman was the father of the idea of vouchers which he first endorsed in an essay that he wrote way back in the 1950s. As an advocate of public education, I have to admit that the idea of vouchers scares me. Although I think that in places where the schools are truly bad that vouchers are justified, I'm afraid that a full-fledged voucher system would destroy public schools. I did a post on vouchers in June, so I won't rehash that here. Suffice it to say that I have often suspected that destroying our public school system was part of a hidden agenda for those who advocate vouchers. I mean, who would ever admit that they would like to see public schools disappear? But in the last couple of months, I have been introduced through these blogs to Steven, who says just that. I do have to hand it to him; Steven is definitely up front about what he believes. And I know that it comes as no surprise to him when I say that I think he is way off base.

Steven says this about public education: "The government has no business using public funds to provide for private goods such as education. People should provide for their own education, just as they provide for their own food, clothing and shelter. I don't buy the public benefit argument. That argument could be used to justify just about anything that the government wished to do 'for the good of society'."

Steven justifies his disdain for public education with his view of the intent of the Founding Fathers of our country, especially Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, the Constitution and the Bill of Rights: "My 'radical' views regarding the proper role of governemnt in a free society are pretty much in line with those of Jefferson and Madison. The purpose of our written constitution and our bill of rights is to limit the power of government to only what is necessary to secure the natural rights of individuals (life, liberty and property)."

I think it's fair to say that Steven's use of the Constitution and the Bill of Rights as a basis for his views is stretching things. Steven is a "small government" guy, but The Constitution was actually created to strengthen the national government. It replaced our first constitution, The Articles of Confederation, which was clearly failing because it hadn't given the national government enough power. As John P. Roche points out in his classic essay on the Constitutional Convention, the framers were nationalists who were trying to create as strong a national government as they could, and still get the states to swallow it.

Another other problem with using the framers of the Constitution and the Bill of Rights in an argument against public education is that they deal with the national government, and public schools have always been products of state governments. The Bill of Rights was created with the purpose of limiting the powers of Congress, not state legislatures. In fact, it wasn't applied to the states at all until the Fourteenth Amendment was passed after the Civil War. Since tax supported schools had been around since 1647 in certain colonies, I don't know how anyone could make the case that the framers of the Constitution or the Bill of Rights wanted to prohibit them.

Okay, if you can't use framers of the Constitution and the Bill of Rights in an argument against public education, how about Thomas Jefferson, who wasn't even at the Constitutional Convention? After all, if there is a father of the idea of small government in America, it would be him. Steven makes frequent references to Jefferson in his arguments against public education, and he quotes him here: "A wise and frugal government, which shall restrain men from injuring one another, which shall leave them otherwise free to regulate their own pursuits of industry and improvement, and shall not take from the mouth of labor the bread it has earned. This is the sum of good government."

But there is a slight problem with using Thomas Jefferson in a denunciation of public education, because Jefferson was one of public education's earliest and strongest promoters. The man who said, "All men are created equal," believed that meant making education available to all through government. Jefferson said, "I have indeed two great measures at heart, without which no republic can maintain itself in strength: 1. That of general education, to enable every man to judge for himself what will secure or endanger his freedom. 2. To divide every county into hundreds, of such size that all the children of each will be within reach of a central school in it."

Steven's response to this is that while Jefferson's overall philosophy was correct, he was wrong about public education. Nevertheless, I think it's questionable, to say the least, to invoke Jefferson's name and philosophy in an argument against something that he so strongly supported.

Steven is a believer in small government. If he was questioning some of the laws passed by legislatures and rulings made by courts dealing with public schools, I'd say he has a point. If he was saying that the national government has become too involved in public education, a lot of teachers would say that he has a point. But that is not what he is saying. He is saying that there should be no public education. Steven has every right to say that, but I think we need to make one thing perfectly clear. When he says that we should not have tax-supported public schools, he is not giving us the Jefferson-Madison philosophy of small government; he is giving us the Steven philosophy of small government.


Blogger jettybetty said...

I don't know how big the group that agrees with Stephen is--but in the blog world they are VERY vocal. The first time I read one of their blogs, I was stunned--I couldn't even believe they were suggesting such. However, I soon learned (after leaving a comment) they ARE for real!

What I don't understand is this--civilized, industrialized, first world--whatever term you want to call it--countries educate their children. After reading the aforementioned blogs, I have thought and thought about it--and I don't see how the US could survive and not have public schools. I believe we would quickly become a third world country--at the very least our way of life would change dramatically.

I am glad you are not only a public school teacher, but a history teacher, because you've given a great analysis of the history of public education here (yes, I know it's biased, but it's my bias, so I like it). I think I will print it out and put it with your book--just in case I need a quick reference some time.

Surely some time you will post something I don't agree with so I won't forever be in your Amen chorus. ;-)

12/09/2006 12:55 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

"I mean, who would ever admit that they would like to see public schools disappear?"

This surprises you? If you qualify this to read "public schools as they're run now," I imagine quite a few people would "admit" to feeling this way. I support public schools as an abstract ideal but I certainly don't support the public schools that actually exist in my community (well, I have no choice but to "support" them with my taxes, but I assure you that monetary support isn't voluntary).

12/09/2006 1:13 PM  
Blogger Dennis Fermoyle said...

Anonymous, since you are "anonymous", you probably don't want to reveal too much, but I'm curious about your community and its schools. Can you tell us if you're rural, urban, or suburban or what part of the country you're in? Can you tell what you don't like about how your schools are run? There are things that I don't like about how our schools are run, too, and I'd like to know if you and I are allies, adversaries (friendly ones, though, hopefully), or somewhere in-between.

And JettyBetty, thank you again!

12/09/2006 1:30 PM  
Anonymous steven said...

In 1789 a bill was introduced in Congress that sought bounties for Cape Cod fishermen. The bill was rejected. In opposing the bill James Madison had this to say: "If Congress can employ money indefinitely to the general welfare, they may take the care of religion into their own hands; they may appoint teachers in every state, county, and parish, and pay them out of the public treasury: they may take into their own hands the education of children, establishing in the like manner schools throughout the Union: they may seek the provision of the poor...all of which would subvert the very foundations, and transmute the very nature of the limited government established by the people of America." Thomas Jefferson had this to say about the bill being rejected: "This will settle forever the meaning of the phrase 'general welfare,' which, by a mere grammatical quibble, has countenanced the general government in a claim of universal power." It is very unfortunate that the meaning of the phrase 'general welfare' was not, as Jefferson thought, settled by the rejection of this bill.

The implications of the above quotes and the "wise and frugal government" statement that you repeated in your post to the Jefferson/Madison views regarding limited government should be obvious to intelligent, open minded people that are willing to take the time to think about it. The problem of the founders was to create a government that was strong enough to govern, but weak enough to not abuse the liberty of the people. The founders recognized the need for government, but they also feared what government could do if it got too powerful. History if full of examples of what can happen when government has too much power. But the idea of limited government is all but forgotten today by most Americans, many of whom think that the government should provide for our every need from cradle to grave.

Yes, Thomas Jefferson was in favor of the establishment of public schools. But his views regarding public education were considered radical by most of his peers, and a bill he introduced in 1806 to establish universal public education was not even considered by Congress. His views regarding public education contradicted his views regarding limited government.

Dennis, you say that the idea of vouchers scares you. I think that you are afraid of change. Your fear of change is what drives you to be so defensive about public education. And that is a shame. If you are a good teacher, as you seem to indicate and I have no reason to believe otherwise, then you should not be afraid of competition and change. Good teachers would thrive in a competitive system of private education. Bad teachers would be forced to find another line of work. Americans are the last people on earth who should fear competition and change. Resistance to change impedes progress.

12/10/2006 8:04 AM  
Blogger Dennis Fermoyle said...

Good comeback, Steven! It looks like you can at least claim Madison, although he was generally considered Jefferson's protege. I looked for any references regarding Madison and public education, and I couldn't find any. Obviously, you did.

Regarding vouchers and competition, let me repeat what I've said before. If public schools are going to be expected to compete with private schools, then give us the same powers to deal with disruptive and apathetic students as they have. Do that, and my feeling is, "Bring 'em on!" But if we are expected to compete with the equivalent of one hand tied behind our backs, then I'm honestly afraid that the scenario I described in my post on vouchers will come true. But then, you might not think that's such a bad thing.

12/10/2006 10:07 AM  
Blogger Dennis Fermoyle said...

Sorry, Steven, but I've decided I'm not so willing to cede you Madison. (Don't you just hate it when people change their minds like that?!) After reading your comment again, it sunk in that Madison was talking about Congress. As you probably know, when our nation was in its infancy the battle over national vs. state powers was quite intense. When someone argued that the national government shouldn't have the power to do something, it didn't mean that the states shouldn't either. There is nothing there to indicate that Madison or the Congress in 1806 objected to states and localities setting up schools. I have mixed feelings about the national government's involvement in public education, but as I said in my post, if you were objecting to that, you'd have a lot of teachers agreeing with you. But you are objecting to much more than that.

12/10/2006 10:41 AM  
Blogger elementaryhistoryteacher said...

Sorry Dennis, I'm going to have to leave it to you and Steven to debate the Constitution on this particular issue. I've wrestled with the same document over half the day today regarding another issue I posted about and frankly, I'm not up to it.

However, I agree with you Dennis that there won't be a level playing field between public and private as long as public schools have no control over violent and disruptive kids. This doesn't mean that I want more government in private schools....that certainly isn't the answer.

On the flip-side though public education as a whole is in a mess and as I watch the powers that be directly over me and way on up the line I'm coming rapidily to the conclusion they are doing everything they can to kill it.

12/10/2006 3:40 PM  
Blogger Dennis Fermoyle said...

EHT, I just read your latest post, and I can certainly understand why you're not up to more discussion on the Constitution. That had to take a lot of thought and work. You are an amazingly prolific writer, and I don't know how you do it along with your teaching. I get home from school, and it's all I can do just to check my own blog for comments, and to fire up a new post once a week or so. I can handle some outside reading, but the thinking involved in the posting and responding to comments wears me down. People like Steven, Crypticlife, and KDerosa are making my hair turn even grayer than it already was! How do you keep doing it?

And by the way, I'm curious about what you are trying to get published. Are you going to fill us in? In any case, best of luck.

12/10/2006 6:33 PM  
Blogger elementaryhistoryteacher said...

Hugs and kisses Dennis and a big thank you......maybe Steven and the others on that 29 comment post can now realize that there ARE social studies teachers like you and me that know our subject matter very well and can walk and talk at the same time. (I'm kinda kiddin' here....)

I'm wanting to get anything published at this point. I think that's my problem---I have so many ideas and so many things I want to do. I need to focus on one thing at time. I would love to put together a book about growing up in the 70s with my viewpoint as a child and teen interlaced with real history and pop culture. I've put some pieces on my site and have gotten a good response, so I'm trying to think of some others to put with it. I don't know about self-publishing, but I don't know if I want to go through the waiting process with a publisher either.

Getting back to the subject of your post.....I'm still thinking that public ed. is too far gone....too fractured. What if Steven got his wish and it went away? What if more and more people homeschool? What if more and more private schools were begun? What if charters or quasi-private schools were formed from restructured public schools? How would our school system look? How would it work? Of course, public funding (taxes) would still be in the mix, but possible in a different format.

12/11/2006 2:08 PM  
Anonymous steven said...

There is nothing to indicate that Madison and Congress objected to the states setting up public schools in 1806, probably because public schools did not become common until the 1840's. Most schools before that time were privately operated and funded. The public schools you mention in the mid 1600's were set up mostly to suppress religious dissent.

I learned from the link you gave us in your post here to Thomas Jefferson quotes that, while Jefferson was in favor of public funding for schools, he did object to compulsory education. His view on compulsory education is in the education section of the quotes.

Madison was indeed referring to Congress, but so does, for example, the First Amendment. Using your rationale from above, there is nothing that prohibits any of the states from establishing religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof. Would you feel less oppressed if the state government, instead of the federal government, was doing the oppressing? The privileges and immunities clause of the Fourteenth Amendment did address this issue, but my feeling is that more needs to be done in this area.

12/11/2006 4:20 PM  
Blogger Dennis Fermoyle said...

Steven, this might surprise you, but I have my own reservations about the "compulsory" part of public education. Quite frankly, if we get a student who doesn't want to be there--or if his parents don't want him to be there, I think it's going to be very difficult to accomplish anything. In fact, it's entirely possible that having too many kids who don't really want to be there is a big part of our problem.

It seems to me that I read this summer, possibly in AMERICAN SPHINX, that one of the reasons for the establishment clause was that the states didn't want the national government interfering with THEIR established religions. I know that eight of the colonies had established religions at the time of the Revolution, and I know that when the Constitution was written there were still states that had religious requirements for voting. That doesn't take away the validity of your point about religious freedom, but I just thought it was interesting.

I agree with you that no government should be able to violate our religious freedoms, and I'm open to your ideas about compulsory education, but I still don't see any evidence that there was a feeling among the Framers that states and localities should not have tax-supported education. So I'd still argue that being against that is small government according to Steven. But, hey, is that such a bad thing?

12/11/2006 5:14 PM  
Blogger CrypticLife said...

"Madison was indeed referring to Congress, but so does, for example, the First Amendment. Using your rationale from above, there is nothing that prohibits any of the states from establishing religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof. "

I have to disagree, Steven. The Constitution states that powers not given to it are left to the states, or the people. The Federal government is intentionally set up as a limited government, where any powers not justifiable by a provision within the Constitution are prohibited. State governments are not, except that they may not infringe on rights stated within the Constitution. Setting up a public school system may violate the tenth amendment if done by the Federal government, but the same argument would be quite difficult to apply to the states. It's easy to make the argument that the federal government does not have the power to establish a public school system. If a state does it, however, it's a bit tenuous to claim that doing so infringes on the privileges and immunities of citizens.

Dennis, I'm wondering if your resistance to vouchers includes resistance to school choice. I believe that's what most who are interested are really after. They feel railroaded by a system that allows them no opportunity to better their child's education other than investing in a completely new neighborhood, or investing in private schooling. How do you feel about allowing school choice, sans vouchers?

Tenth amendment: The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.

Fourteenth amendment (in part): No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States

12/12/2006 7:21 AM  
Anonymous MellowOut said...

crypticlife, when you asked Dennnis what he thinks of other models, do you mean an open boundary model like in Edmonton, Alberta? There were some articles recently posted on Joanne Jacobs and other sites talking about this model and the success they're having.

Dennis, I would love to see your take on that model, as well. Most of the private religious schools are struggling in Edmonton while the public schools are thriving under their model of school choice. However, one of the points of this model is "poor quality schools close or reinvent themselves", yet there are issues with school closures ("Successful" schools, mind you!) in Edmonton right now because of low enrollment throughout the city.

12/12/2006 9:25 AM  
Anonymous steven said...

Crypticlife (and everyone else), let me pose a hypothetical question to you. If England had imposed a government controlled system of universal, compulsory education on the colonists resembling the one we have today, do you think the founders would have opposed it? I think they would have opposed it with all their might (including Jefferson), and we would have had a bill of rights that included a provision for freedom of education. The right of parents to decide how best to bring up and educate their children, and the right of individuals to not be required to provide for the direct welfare of other people is consistant with their (and my) philosophy of limited government.

12/12/2006 9:25 AM  
Blogger CrypticLife said...


I wasn't specifically aware of the Edmonton system, but it does indeed sound like what I was considering. Dennis always presents the voucher issue as a competition between public and private schools. I'd like to see competition within the public schools.


Initially the BOR applied only to the federal government, not the states, so even had your hypothetical occurred it would have left the states free to establish public education standards. Such an amendment would also presumably have affected the debate on the 14th amendment, which applied the BOR to the states. So, while philosophically you may have something in saying your philosophy is consistent with the founder's, I don't think you have a very strong Constitutional argument. There are a lot of originalists, but even the most stringent originalist agrees that amendments are part of the Constitution, and that you cannot assume amendments based on mere consistency with the founder's philosophy (okay, perhaps that's an overstatement of what you're saying, but you see what I mean, I'm sure).

bettyjetty, I'm shocked to hear you say you don't think you'd enjoy a year of Con Law. It's actually very interesting, and if I had time and energy I'd do another year of it.

12/12/2006 12:33 PM  
Anonymous steven said...


I looked back over my comments in this post and the Dreyfuss post, and I honestly can't see where I used the Constitution and Bill of Rights to make my argument against government schooling. I was using the founders' philosophy and reasoning to make my case (at least that's what I thought I was doing). I can see where Dennis says that I am using the Constitution and Bill of Rights, but I don't see it in my comments. I should have cleared that up sooner. My intention was to make a philosophical argument.

You pointed out that states may not infringe on rights stated within the Constitution. The problem that I see with this approach is that the Constitution was not intended to list all the individual rights that we are entitled to enjoy. The Constitution was intended to protect the rights of individuals by limiting the power of government to those enumerated in Article 1, Section 8. So the result of that approach is that any rights not stated within the Constitution, which is not intended to state all the rights of individuals, may be infringed upon by the states. This is what I meant when I said that more work needs to be done. I think this need to be fixed, so that the founders' concept of limited government would also apply to the states.

Of course, it would be nice if our federal government would apply the founders' concept of limited government to what they do. I don't see that happening anytime soon.

12/12/2006 3:06 PM  
Blogger Dennis Fermoyle said...

Crypticlife and Mellowout, I've read one article about Edmonton's system, so I don't feel like I understand it well enough to say too much about it. What I read did look good, though. In Minnesota, we have something called open-enrollment which sounds like what you are talking about. Basically, kids can choose to go to any school in the state. The problem is that I have rarely heard about kids transferring for academic reasons; most of the transfers seem to be for sports. I coached high school hockey in Warroad, and we benefitted greatly from this. For eleven years we had the best hockey coach that I have even known. His reputation was well known throughout the state, and almost every year we would gain a talented hockey player or two. Other schools in Northern Minnesota hated us for this, though, and parents of kids who ended up not making our team weren't thrilled about it either.

I grew up in Minneapolis during the era of neighborhood schools. For as long as I could remember, I knew that I would be going to Minneapolis Southwest, so I identified with that school even when I was a little boy. I followed their teams, bought tee-shirts and sweatshirts with the school's logo, and couldn't wait until I could actually go there. My parents were involved in the community, and took a great deal of pride in the neighborhood schools that I went to. It seems to me that we weren't the only ones or the only neighborhood who felt that way, and I think that was very healthy. I think the ideal situation would be for people to identify with their neighborhood schools and to want to make them as good as possible, but I recognize that times have changed. As much as I might like to go back to that, I don't really think that's ever going to happen.

The bottom line is that I'm okay with open-enrollment, but I don't think it's everything it's cracked up to be.

12/12/2006 3:20 PM  
Blogger Dennis Fermoyle said...

Crypticlife, I want to emphasize that I love competition. Once again, I coached hockey (and there is nothing bigger than high school hockey in Minnesota) for 32 years. We put our products out there for everyone to see against somebody else who was doing the same thing, and every visible move our coaching staff made would be evaluated by knowledgeable fans and others who thought they were. And I will say it again: I would have no problem competing with private schools if we were given the same power to deal with disruptive and apathetic students that they have. I actually think that would be a great system.

12/12/2006 3:43 PM  
Blogger CrypticLife said...

Hmmm, I'll accept that you intended to make a philosophical argument rather than Constitutional, steven, but I would point out:

"My "radical" views regarding the proper role of governemnt in a free society are pretty much in line with those of Jefferson and Madison. The purpose of our written constitution and our bill of rights is to limit the power of government to only what is necessary to secure the natural rights of individuals (life, liberty and property)."

is part of your second post. This (and your first post, which also mentioned the Constitution) is part of what led me to think you were arguing legally rather than philosophically.

Philosophically, I would have the concerns I mentioned earlier about a purely private system: many parents skimp on essentials for their children, and if they had the opportunity would skimp on education. It would be the parent exercising the right, rather than the child, even though the child would be the one hurt by it. With something as critical as reading, writing, and mathematics (and civics ;)), this would lead to some pretty unconscionable results.


Okay. But wouldn't the lack of power of public schools to deal with underperforming teachers also lead to an unfair lack of competitiveness? To be fair, public schools would also have to eliminate tenure, and follow standard state employment law, wouldn't they? And wouldn't they also need the ability to set their own curriculum, to be able to take proper advantage of advances?

12/12/2006 6:09 PM  
Blogger Dennis Fermoyle said...

Crypticlife, I've had so many different conversations on these blogs that I forget which ones I've had with who (or should that be whom? Ah, who cares!). I thought that I had said this somewhere to you, but maybe I haven't. I completely agree about eliminating tenure AND seniority. Although I recognize the validity of arguments in favor of those systems, I think that they are doing more harm than good. I would like to see principals given the power to keep their best teachers, regardless of seniority, and get rid of their worst ones. I said that in the book I wrote, and one of the biggest surprises I had was how many teachers told me they agree.

12/12/2006 7:53 PM  
Anonymous MellowOut said...

I see where you're going with the lack of community issues. From what I've seen here, most parents choose to put their children in schools close to their homes, especially at the elementary level, unless there are special programs offered elsewhere (language immersion, Cogito, fine arts). It's at the high school level where things get competitive among the schools and parents may send their children across the city (This can mean an hour's drive sometimes.). Even then, it's rare for parents to go beyond options that are not within their community.

I think another reason it works here is that the city does a very good job of giving each neighborhood/community it's own identity, despite the increasing expansion of the city. There are some very active community leagues here that bring people together. One of the reasons I like living here is that hometown community feel even in a city that is on the larger side.

It's not perfect, though, and there are some bad schools. From my experience, most of them seem to involve poor organization at the school level, since the city gives each school more control over their individual budgets and policies. Also, the fads and major changes in education that are affecting US schools are starting to do a little damage up here. I know parents who are not happy with the fact that their children are getting more and more homework in the younger grades, especially kindergarten.

12/13/2006 9:06 AM  
Anonymous MellowOut said...

One more thing I've noticed is that on the web sites that promote school choice, they talk about the union not being very strong in Edmonton. That is so very wrong. The difference here is that the teachers' union seem to have more support from the parents and other members of the community.

Another thing I forgot to mention, there is a major debate goign on in the city right now over putting new housing on unused school sites becuase the housing up here is skyrocketing. Communities are uniting against this idea because they say they want the school land to be used for schools so their children will not have to travel out of the community to attend school.

12/13/2006 9:15 AM  
Anonymous steven said...


I'm sure it comes as no surprise that I disagree with your concerns about a private education system. Even if one were to concede the the government has a moral obligation to see that everyone has an education (which I don't), there is still no justification for a universal, compulsory, government funded and operated education system.

Consider the social services departments of states. They rely on reported abuse and neglect of children to enforce the government standards. Only if a report is received and verified does the state take action. Assuming that failing to see that your children gets an education constitutes child neglect, why should the state treat education any differently than other forms of neglect?

You say that the parent is the one who exercises the right, but the child is the one effected. That is correct, but there are so many other situations in which this concept applies. Children don't vote, but the outcome effects them. Parents generally decise what children eat, but the outcome effects the child. Parents make thousands of decisions that effect their children. We trust parents to make the right choices, even though we know that some will fail to do so.

Do you really think that government education is accomplishing its stated intentions? Read the U.S. Department of Education National Adult Literacy Survey from December 2001. According to this survey, about 25% of adult Americans cannot function at Level 2 literacy, which would include things such as being able to locate an intersection on a street map or determining the difference in price between tickets for two shows. About 50% of adult Americans cannot function at Level 3 literacy, which would include such things as writing a brief letter explaining an error made on a credit card bill or using a calculator to calculate the difference between the regular and sale price from an advertisement. This is after public education has been in place for over 150 years.

How many children has the public educations system failed?

12/13/2006 9:58 AM  
Blogger CrypticLife said...


I think states should be free to do as you suggest -- move to an all-private educational system, and see how it works. I don't know that it would be terrible, but I don't think my concerns are inapplicable.

I'll agree we give parents the right to make all sorts of decisions for their children. If you want a good argument, though, you might consider picking different topics. Parents decide what their children eat, and American children are the most obese in the world. That's not a few making bad decisions, that's legions of parents making bad decisions.

Negligence in the care of one's own child is virtually unenforced in this country, and often when it is it's at the behest of vindictive ex-spouses. Enforcement of educational neglect would be fraught with difficulty, and there would need to be a significant regulatory regime built around it (which may be possible, so I won't entirely discount the idea).

I'm not sure what the "stated intention" ;) of the educational system is, but I'd agree I don't think it's doing a particularly good job. I have not extensively researched literacy scores, but I know that math scores place us about average among nations, and near the bottom of industrialized nations. It would not surprise me if we're not teaching literacy very well, though I think it's probably far harder to quantify just how bad it is. I'd be curious as to the methodology of the NALS study, and any comparisons to other countries/time periods. It doesn't reconcile with my personal experience that 25% of adults wouldn't be able to find an intersection on a map (and it seems a bit too much like a headline bullet point for me to believe it without more investigation).

Regardless, you seem to be saying a government-mandated educational system, now matter how modified, would be faulty. I don't, at the current time, believe this. Certainly ours needs improvement. I don't see that its public nature, by itself, prevents it from being improved. Allowing experimentation will create different results which can be compared, until as a nation we can decide on a direction. This is where I thought you were going with the limited government argument, and it's a good direction. You apply it to ALL levels of government, however -- local, state, and national -- where I think government should be able to create educational mandates at the state level.

12/13/2006 3:04 PM  
Blogger Dennis Fermoyle said...

Mellowout, thanks for the info on Edmonton's system. It is interesting. We Yanks could probably learn a few things from our friends from up North.

Steven, I have to take issue with your point that you summed up with your last question: How many children have the public education systems failed?

The United States is a big country, and I have only taught in two districts during my career. I have also only taught in grades 7-12 during my career, and the only experience I have with kids younger than that is as a little league baseball coach. So I know that when I generalize, it's got to be taken with a grain of salt.

That being said, hearing over and over again from people who don't see what goes on inside a school that we are failing kids drives me crazy. JettyBetty expressed her frustration with people who have never taught telling how we should teach and how we should be doing things. I understand non-teacher critics of public education being irritated by that, because it seems to say that anyone outside the schools systems shouldn't criticize us. Nevertheless, I completely understand where JettyBetty is coming from.

That is because I honestly believe that if some of those people who say that "public schools are failing kids" could follow me around for a week or two, and see how hard I work and how many things I do in an effort to make it possible for every kid I have to learn; and then if could see how little effort some of my kids make, I really believe that they would begin to sing a different tune.

That's one reason why I am sympathetic to your point about education being compulsory. We can't force education down anyone's throats. We can only give the opportunity to be educated, and I believe that in most places we are doing that quite well.

12/13/2006 3:11 PM  
Anonymous steven said...

CrypticLife - I was in a big hurry when I wrote my last comment (forgive my spelling). Perhaps "stated intentions" was not the best terminology to use. I would have been better off saying "what we expect from our public schools" or something like that. You can view the complete NAL survey by going to, going to the "myths of government schooling" section and clicking on myth #4, then clicking on the survey name in the 2nd paragraph. It is 288 pages long. I didn't read every word, of course, but I read enough to confirm that the freedomofeducation site was not making anything up. There are some good articles on the freedomofeducation site. I especially enjoy the Sheldon Richman articles.

Dennis - I did not ask that question to be dumping on teachers who are doing their best to work within a system that I consider to be all but unworkable. I wanted those who say that reverting back to a private education system would ruin our country to consider that public education is not doing such a wonderful job, if 50% of adult Americans cannot do tasks that are required by most decent paying jobs, and 25% of adult Americans cannot perform the simplist of literary functions. You even acknowledge that in some school districts vouchers are justified because those schools are not working - which means that these schools have failed the students.

12/13/2006 4:34 PM  
Blogger Dennis Fermoyle said...

"You even acknowledge that in some school districts vouchers are justified because those schools are not working - which means that these schools have failed the students."

Steven, I might be quibbling about semantics here, but I just don't see it that way. I don't work in the inner-cities, so in this case I'm guessing as much as you are, but I think what we have here are failing communities and failing neighborhoods. I know that our school basically gives kids the preparation that they want. Kids with high aspirations end up being prepared for big things; kids with lower aspirations end up being prepared for things that aren't as demanding. I suspect that same thing happens in those inner-city schools that are doing poorly, but sociologists tell us that one of the problems of people who fall into the lower socieoeconomic class is a sense of hopelessness. In other words, I suspect that many of those kids who do so poorly in those inner-city schools have very low aspirations. But that is certainly not true for all those kids. What the percentages are, I have no idea. But from the experience I've had in high school classrooms, when you put too many kids with low aspirations (disruptive and apathetic) in the same classrooms, learning becomes impossible for anyone. I think we have to find a way to separate those kids in those schools who do have higher aspirations--who do want to learn--away from kids who don't care. I was reading about Cleveland last night which at one point at a 2/3 dropout rate. In that case, I think vouchers might be the only way to do it.

12/14/2006 2:56 AM  
Anonymous steven said...

I do see your point, Dennis.

12/14/2006 5:34 AM  
Blogger Dennis Fermoyle said...

Gee, Steven, I'm getting kind of choked up here. I think that's the nicest thing you've ever said to me!


12/14/2006 1:26 PM  
Anonymous steven said...

Don't get cocky, kid!

12/14/2006 1:56 PM  
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