So the lead in question I have for you is this: “Do we have a stronger democracy now than America did in let’s say, 1813?” What do you think? Are we better at making laws? Are our politicians of better character? Do we carefully conduct strong public discourse and then elect the best among us to represent us in our government? Has government found that balance of power that allows them to care for the people without becoming a burden to the people? And no matter which way you answer those questions, how much of the credit or fault for our situation has been brought about by the decision in 1890 to make education in America compulsory? A more direct question, then, is this: “Should education in America continue to be compulsory?”
And that is not just my question. It is being asked by a politician: State Sen. Aaron Osmond, R-South Jordan. He has called for the end of compulsory education, at least in his state. And he has some pretty solid reasoning. One danger a democracy must always be wary of is assuming that the status quo is working. Progressive avoids this problem by assuming we must always be changing. But conservatives in particular must constantly ask questions of themselves to determine whether to keep the best, or let it go for the better. So with education. My purpose here is to call us to discourse more than to action, thus I am happy to simply ask questions for the time being, knowing that there are real answers if we will but seek them.
Is compulsory education necessary for a republican democracy? Note that I use a lower case “r” on republican. If we are going to elect for ourselves representatives, does this mean that all citizens must be educated through a compulsory system? The main argument 130 years ago for making national truancy laws turned on this concept – a democracy demands an educated people. When this was debated, our nation had made it through many decades without compulsory education because parents were willing and able to raise their own children with high standards of education for those who could get it, and the rest went to work and earned their living with their backs.
Isn’t making kids attend our schools part of reform and improvement of education in our land? Making education compulsory was intended to make a good education available to all. But what if many or even most don’t want to pay the prices of work and appetite that such an education would cost them? The government was unwilling to leave such a choice to the people so it made it compulsory. Horace Mann, perhaps the loudest and clearest proponent of compulsory education when the debate was happening in America, justified the need for such coercion on the basis of the good of society. He said, in his Third Annual Report, “Common Schools derive their value from the fact, that they are an instrument, more extensively applicable to the whole mass of the children, than any other instrument ever yet devised. They are an instrument, by which the good men in society can send redeeming influence to those children, who suffer under the calamity of vicious parentage and evil domestic associations.” If I may interpret: “Kids need to be saved from their parents by the state.” Now that several generations of parents have been taught under the current State system, the rhetoric can change – compulsory schooling now teaches the youth to be as compliant as their parents, and to be good workers for society. But most Americans today believe that publicly funded education is not meeting the standards necessary for success either in college or the work world and because of such, it needs reforming. But what role would eliminating the “compulsory” aspect of it play in that reform?
Is compulsory education something we can afford as a nation economically? In 2012, according to http://www.usgovernmentspending.com, federal, state, and local monies spent in the U.S. on education totaled 781.2 billion dollars. If you were to add in all the money spent on tutors, after school programs, sports, and private education, the amount would be even more staggering. Just consider the following simple mathematics. In general terms, today in America we spend about $10,000 per student throughout K-12 education, with the costs being higher in college (much of which is publicly funded as well). With a class average of close to 20 students per teacher, that should mean that even if the teacher only got half the money, he would still be in six figures. I think most of us know that is not so. Forgetting where all that “other” money is going, just ask yourself; “Could we spend money in education more wisely if only students who wanted a good education were being provided one at public expense?”
“But if you don’t make it compulsory, it becomes unfair, right?” Important question. But isn’t it unfair already? Those who want a good education go and find it, and they don’t assume it is provided for them by compulsory schooling, in fact most of the truly desirous ones opt out of public education, or supplement so much that it does not resemble at all what others are receiving. The simple fact is that our schools are full of kids whose own desires along with that of their parents is not to be in class, but doing something else. And those unmotivated kids, putting in their time, get in the way of the education others in the class are seeking. So why do we compel unwilling pupils to continue?
Is it education if it is compulsory? If the student is sitting in the classroom simply to avoid the truant officer, can he really be said to be learning anything? When you consider what else he might be doing instead (pursuing crime, watching TV or a video game, or hanging out on the corner) then it seems better to have him safely tucked in his desk, but is that the best choice we have? Should compulsory education become a thinly veiled form of free babysitting.
If a government compels its citizens to be educated, what does this do to the family and parenting? You see that is where both State Senator Osmond and myself go with all this. Our nation is suffering deeply from its rules. A rule is a way in which those in power limit thought. Rather than choosing education, it is foisted upon all citizens. You don’t have to consider as a parent what is best for each child you are responsible for, but rather you simply obey truancy laws and send off to school each day. Removing so much of what used to constitute parenting and placing those decisions elsewhere means that many children today grow up to be the adult manifestations not of their parent’s desires and choices, but those of the State. Is that in keeping with a truly republican democracy and its needs?
What would a non-compulsory system be able to do that our current compulsory system cannot? Or what current problems would be solved by removing the compulsion? Asking these questions and many others that invariably come from the first questions, are what is necessary to provoke the kind of real public discourse necessary for maintaining our citizenry in a state of liberty, free thought, and real education. Why are we so scared to have the conversation?