As detailed by Albert Jay Nock, the three ideas or principles historically underlying the theory of education are equality, democracy, and the notion that a literate citizenry assures good public order and honest government. With these ideas in mind, it is often concluded that schooling should be considered a “public good”, or even a right.
On the topic of equality it is fitting to echo the words of economist and historian Murray Rothbard:
“It is evident that the common enthusiasm for equality is, in the fundamental sense, anti-human. It tends to repress the flowering of individual personality and diversity, and civilization itself; it is a drive toward savage uniformity. Since abilities and interests are naturally diverse, a drive toward making people equal in all or most respects is necessarily a leveling downward. It is a drive against development of talent, genius, variety and reasoning power. Since it negates the very principles of human life and human growth, the creed of equality and uniformity is a creed of death and destruction.”
Still, it could be argued that the least we should do for equality’s sake would be to make schooling accessible for all children regardless of race, color, creed, or socio-economic background. After all, few would contest the argument that getting a good education generally increases one’s chances of being successful in life. But how does that relate to schooling? If equality were the overarching goal, why not have other necessities of life such as food, clothing and shelter – arguably more important than schooling – funded by taxpayers and their consumption mandated by law? Exactly what kind of equality are we talking about?
Understanding the term “equality” in the context of schooling to refer to equal access, let’s try to put the current situation in historical perspective. It is worth noting a few historical facts that help dispel some of the myths and commonly held beliefs many seem to have. What was education like prior to the dawn of “public”, mandatory schooling?
The supply of schooling in Britain between 1800 and 1840 was relatively substantial, despite educational institutions having to depend on private funds, mostly from working parents and the church. Needless to say, education was in less abundant supply than today, just as can be said about virtually everything else. Yet the percentage of the net national income spent on day-schooling of children of all ages in England was higher in 1833 than after schooling had become tax funded and compulsory.
On the other side of the pond, before the dawn of taxpayer funded schools, the state of New York appointed five commissioners to analyze the common school system in the state. The commission acknowledged that in order to credibly make the case for public schools, it would have to prove that the existing system was failing to meet children’s educational needs. Except what they found was the opposite: “(..) there is a natural stimulus to education; and accordingly we find it generally resorted to, unless some great local impediments interfere” . Schooling was already widespread!
Judging by their actions, though, government bureaucrats were nonetheless determined to intervene. The Free Schools Act of 1867 abolished rate bills (fees) in taxpayer-funded public schools, thereby bringing an end to the level playing field in which public and private schools had been competing freely. Predictably the effect was the crowding out of the private by the public sector. The public school system was further strengthened by the introduction of laws for compulsory schooling.
Over time this monopoly has become so entrenched that any policy to re-introduce competition in whatever form would be, and has been, vehemently opposed by teachers’ unions like the National Education Association (NEA) and the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) and subsequently voted down by their political minions. Naturally the same can be said about their European counterparts such as the NUT and NASUWT in Britain and the GEW in Germany, not to mention the global teachers’ union federation Education International (EI). These organizations lobby for and massively benefit from maintaining the status quo in education, keeping competition out of the market and prices artificially high.
But what of equal quality? In the current system the majority of children do end up attending school because (a) they are forced to and (b) the taxpayer is made to foot the bill. The current system also mandates that a central government set the educational standards for all schools within its borders, whether public or private.
Quality control is thereby put into the hands of bureaucrats in a faraway government building. The standards and requirements are passed on from the top all the way down to those actually in the field working with the children that are supposed to meet said demands, or fail. Conformity and obedience are rewarded while the creative, critical thinkers are deemed “difficult” if not given the label of having a mental disorder.
Stay tuned for part two with which we’ll start 2014 in style!
 Nock, A.J. (1932). The Theory of Education in the United States. Rahway, NJ: Quinn & Boden Company. p. 27.
 Rothbard, M.N. (1999). Education: Free & Compulsory. Auburn, AL: Ludwig von Mises Institute.