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.