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April 1997
Volume 15, Number 4

School Values, Public and Private
William H. Peterson

President Clinton, standing tall among Miami schoolchildren and pushing the Drug Abuse Resistance Education (DARE) program, calls on America's youth to stand for values. So does the U.S. Department of Education in its master plan, Goals 2000. As do Newt Gingrich and Trent Lott, the Rainbow Curriculum in New York City, and the Dade County School District in Florida.

Legislators in every state are calling for a national conference on the teaching of values. The next step may be for the federal government to approve "national standards," which, Clinton promises, won't be "government standards." As with much of his rhetoric, he's hit on a distinction without a difference.

It's true that a growing teenage attitude in public schools seems to be one of petulance, irreverence, neglect, and self-indulgence. The "let it all hang out" culture of the 1960s has descended to an "in your face" culture in the 1990s.

In a Los Angeles Times op-ed piece, one high school teacher tells how she used to start her day saying "Good morning, students," who would then respond, "Good morning, Mrs. Jones." But on her return to the classroom after a long hiatus raising her own children, her "Good morning, students" was met by "Shut up, bitch" and howls of derision. In his 1993 book, Inside Education, Thomas Sowell points out that students are often "sent back home conditioned to disrespect and disobey their parents." Parents are all too aware of this.

Yet the concern over values in public education is not properly centered. Civil libertarians are on to something in asking just whose values are to be taught, even if they're not disconcerted about teaching the young about environmental values and safe-sex values. In a federally backed program, especially one promoting national standards, there is no mystery about whose values will prevail.

The point lost in all this values-talk is that the medium is the message. There may have been a time when public schools, locally controlled and financed, taught the decent values of the community. But these days, with funding and control increasingly centralized, it is the very institutional structure of the school that shapes how schools advance their mission. And as John Stuart Mill said, "general state education is a mere contrivance for molding people to be exactly like one another.... It establishes a despotism over the mind."

America's worry over a general moral erosion in politics and society has coincided with ever-more draconian federal control over education. What's often overlooked is that government schooling itself may be the crux of the problem. In particular, the compulsory attendance laws that exist in every state, and which are reinforced by federal programs, guarantee a captive audience for political indoctrination.

What about the value of thrift? Public schools get ever more expensive even while spending and outcomes no longer correlate. Utah spends less per pupil than any other state yet ranks fourth in average SAT scores; the District of Columbia ranks fifth in spending but 49th in SAT scores.

It all stems from the nature of government school funding: less local funding, plus more state and federal "aid" with costly controls. Since taxpayers fund public schools, parents and students pay no tuition. They are either indifferent to costs or powerless to do anything about them. Forced integration and bilingual education impose cost misfits. But because these schools are "free," these costs are disregarded. What a value to transmit!

If it's traditional values and traditional standards we want, the place to turn is private schools. They mean consumer sovereignty and no captive audience. Their very structure is bound up with parental commitment and personal agreement. They require values such as proving your worth, being intellectually challenged, and working harder (both students and teachers). In a private climate, respect for life, liberty, and property tend to thrive, if only by example.

British legal scholar Sir Henry Maine saw Western civilization as man's ascent from status to contract, from being regarded as a child to being respected as an adult, or, in the case of a student, as a potential adult--one able to fend for himself, forge contracts, serve as to be served.

A contract, the basis of all private enterprise, is a voluntary pact by which two or more parties promise to do (or not do) certain things, so as to attain certain ends. It involves mutual trust, shared equity, private property rights, individual incentives, future orientation, personal responsibility, respect for others--values short or missing when tax dollars fund the education.

In government schools--and this also applies to "charter schools"--politics, not contract, is the key to the selection of students, teachers, textbooks, speakers, and guiding philosophies. No wonder the three old "R"s lost out to today's Reproduction, Recycling, and Racism. And no wonder self-discipline and self-application are sacrificed on the attitudinal altar of feel-good and self-esteem.

Values such as integrity, rectitude, truthfulness, honor, honesty, reverence, responsibility, and other building blocks of character have a better chance to grow in private schools. That's because, in this case, the medium is the message. Consent is the key. Unlike their costly public counterparts, private schools--free of politics and funded entirely by private resources--nurture personal commitment, teaching and learning, liberty and independence; in short, a free society.


William H. Peterson is an adjunct scholar with the Mises Institute


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