Government Control of Education Is Starting to Backfire

By Logan Albright

Who should be responsible for your child’s education: you, or the government? It’s a debate that has been raging for centuries, but it is only recently that government control of education has become so intrusive as to inspire real backlash. The alternative education movement in America has been around for decades, but these days it seems to really be picking up steam, and it is not a stretch to attribute at least some of its rise in popularity to the ever-lengthening arm of the government education bureaucracy.

The history of government control of education in the United States is a long and complex one, beginning with the adoption of compulsory schooling laws in the late 19th century. Before that, most children were taught by their parents, in voluntary community schoolhouses, or by the church. Libertarian economist Murray Rothbard offers a quick summary of how compulsory schooling came to be standard practice in America:

In 1850, all the states had public schools, but only Massachusetts and Connecticut were imposing compulsion. The movement for compulsory schooling conquered all of America in the late nineteenth century. Massachusetts began the parade, and the other states all followed, mainly in the 1870s and 1880s. By 1900, almost every state was enforcing compulsory attendance.

At the time, this appears to have been a relatively uncontroversial step, but it proved to be only the beginning. The Constitution notably omits educations from the enumerated powers designated to the federal government, meaning that under the Tenth Amendment the government’s powers of regulating education should be limited to the individual states. All this changed in the 1970s with the establishment of the federal Department of Education, a flagrantly unconstitutional move that has somehow been allowed to stand by the courts.

Thus began a series of federal interventions in education that have stripped control away from parents, teachers, and local communities, while simultaneously failing to demonstrate any measurable improvements in education outcomes. Head Start has been a demonstrated failure in early childhood education. The No Child Left Behind power grab with its focus on high stakes testing has wrought nothing but frustration. Race to the Top paid for the near universally reviled Common Core standards. None of these things has made our children any smarter.

Meanwhile, government interference has gone further than just setting curricula and performance standards. Well-meaning busybodies have gone so far as to dictate what our children can eat, while harassing and bullying kids trying to enjoy the innocent pleasures of childhood. Drugs are pushed onto students who refuse to conform, and individual schools are punished for their attempts to reject oppressive testing mandates. Even while not in school, children left to play on their own are being scooped up and taken from their parents by glorified dogcatchers.

All this has left parents frustrated and looking for alternatives. Hard as it may be for federal bureaucrats to believe, mothers and fathers tend to really care about the wellbeing of their offspring, and they will take extraordinary measures to do what’s best for them, even while apathetic on other political issues. This is why we have seen the ranks of the homeschooled swell in recent years, with an increasing number of parents opting out of traditional school structures.

Increases in technology and the rise of a class of forward thinking entrepreneurs have accelerated this shift. Everyone is familiar of stories of high school dropouts like Bill Gates and Steve Jobs going on to experience revolutionary success with formerly undreamt of technological innovations. Now that model is begin to mature, as Silicon Valley types recognize the need for more individualized education strategies.

Notably, Elon Musk, the billionaire behind SpaceX and Tesla, has founded his own school using the unschooling model that stresses allowing children to explore their natural curiosity rather than forcing certain subjects upon them at predetermined ages, but he is far from the only one to embrace alternative education. In fact, it’s a movement that has been sweeping the entire Silicon Valley community, embracing the educational theories of writers like John Taylor Gatto and John Holt.

All this has a natural appeal for libertarians and those who embrace human individuality, as evidenced by the fact that libertarian standard-bearer Ron Paul has released his own homeschool curriculum designed to encourage free thinking rather than the indoctrination all too many students face at public institutions. Why must all children learn the same things, at the same time, in the same way? Doesn’t that run contrary to everything we know about psychology and the variability of the human mind?

Where many legislators and bureaucrats have been holding up China as a model based on that country’s consistently high test scores, they neglect to mention that the rigid uniformity and lack of opportunity in that country have resulted in a dearth of creativity and innovation. Not only does a collectivist system of child rearing not produce the kind of progress we have seen in the United States, it’s also deeply unsuited to an American culture that has always thrived on individualism.

It remains to be seen how far the alternative education movement will go, but what is clear is that the federal government’s attempts to tighten its grip on how children learn are inspiring no small amount of backlash. Traditionally, conservatives have rallied around the school choice movement, focusing on charter schools and voucher systems. What else is alternative education but school choice taken to its logical conclusion? We may well be moving towards a society in which every family is free to choose the educational approach that works best for its individual circumstances. Provided, of course, that we can keep government out of the way long enough for that to happen.

Logan Albright is the senior research analyst at FreedomWorks.