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November 2002, Volume 20, Number11

Government Cradle Robbing

Timothy D. Terrell

Uncle Sam wants you, even if you are still in diapers. Incredible as it may sound, the Washington, DC, city council is considering a bill that would extend mandatory school attendance laws to very young children—even some 2-year-olds. Bill 14-261 requires all children who turn three before December 31 of an academic school year to be schooled. 

Thus, even those children who are 2 years and 8 months old by the beginning of September would be required to attend school in that year. Even though the bill specifically permits “private instruction,” and thus may allow children to be taught at home, it would doubtless extend state regulatory power further into the affairs of homes. After all, state certification or regulation ordinarily follows from state mandates. 

Certainly, if passed now, the DC bill faces constitutional hurdles. A well-known recent case regarding grandparent visitation rights, Troxel v. Granville (2000), resulted in the Court opinion that the Constitution “protects the fundamental right of parents to make decisions concerning the care, custody, and control of their children.” Yet the DC bill cannot be dismissed as a product of rash and impractical statists. Families have ample reason to be concerned, if only because the DC council’s attempt represents a new offensive by the state that is not likely to be quickly abandoned.

Indeed, constitutional barriers have not prevented other politicians from making similar attempts to take toddlers into the state’s embrace. Last March, Congressman Dennis Kucinich (D-Ohio) introduced H.R. 3912, the Universal Pre-Kindergarten Act, which would help states bring children into schools at younger ages. The state has already successfully staked out substantial claims to a child’s training that extend down to age 5 or 6. Once the state has legal authority to require certain types of schooling for 5- or 6-year-olds, what principle stands in the way of extending that authority to 2- or 3-year-olds? 

Statist attempts to control childhood education date back to the ancient Greeks, at least. The Spartans brought 7-year-old boys into barracks and entrusted their subsequent education and training to the government. 

At least the Spartans had the decency to wait until age 7. Plato would have started even earlier. The extreme statism outlined in his Republic proposed to collectivize all aspects of child-rearing and orient education toward the aggrandizement of the state. Plato proposed “that the wives of our guardians are to be common, and their children are to be common, and no parent is to know his own child, nor any child his parent. . . . The proper officers will take the offspring of the good parents to the pen or fold, and there they will deposit them with certain nurses who dwell in a separate quarter.” 

Two nineteenth-century American socialists, Robert Owen and Frances Wright, sought compulsory education for all children over the age of 2. The children would live in state institutions 24 hours a day, with occasional visits from their parents. The schools would “feed them, clothe them, lodge them; must direct not their studies only, but their occupations and amusements and must care for them until their education is completed.” The entire scheme was, quite openly, for the benefit of the state. As Owen and Wright explained in 1847, “It is national, rational, republican education; free for all at the expense of all; conducted under the guardianship of the state, and for the honor, the happiness, the virtue, the salvation of the state.”

In the statist mindset, education is exclusively for the state, and must therefore be political in every respect. Parents, who typically set the interests of their children above the interests of the state, will inevitably have to be controlled (or coerced) in some way. As Murray Rothbard put it, “The question is under whose guidance, and virtual ‘ownership’ the child should be: his parents’ or the State’s?” 

Rothbard contended that compulsory schooling is a monstrous violation of parental rights over their children. “It is obvious that the natural state of affairs is for the parents to have charge of the child. . . . [But] the only logical alternative to parental ownership of the child is for the State to seize the infant from the parents and to rear it completely itself.” Even at a very young age, children are forced into a collectivist mold: “With collective State ownership of the children replacing individual ownership and rights, it is clear that the collective principle would be enforced in teaching as well.” In state schools, Rothbard continued, “what would be taught is the doctrine of obedience to the State itself.”

Of course, the state is not a cognitive entity interested in self-preservation, but the countless individuals who receive benefits from its coercive power certainly have a common interest in its expansion. Democratic governments must serve countless special interest groups, among which public school employees are both numerous and well-organized. Indeed, the maintenance of political influence is one of the biggest success stories of government schools—in areas of academic achievement, discipline, and student safety, they are demonstrable failures. 

Public school administrators and teachers are faced with an exodus of kindergarten-age students into private schools and home schools. From 1979 to 1997, the percentage of kindergarten students in private schools increased from 13.9 to 16.8 percent, despite dramatic increases in constant-dollar tuition over that period. This does not include departures for home schools, which have boomed in the last 10 years. 

In order to maintain enrollment, government schools are tapping into the pool of younger children. In its 2001–2002 resolutions, the National Education Association supported “early childhood education programs in the public schools for children from birth through age 8.” Though the NEA did not state that these programs should be mandatory for infants or toddlers, it did maintain that all-day, every-day kindergarten should be compulsory for 5-year-olds.

Yet mandatory schooling of ever younger children is not the answer to failing public education. If anything, it is counterproductive. Recent results from the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) indicate that taking children into the system early does not help. As the National Center for Home Education noted, “children from states that have low compulsory attendance ages (5–6) did not score any higher than children from the other states, and in some subjects their average was actually lower.” 

Two recent international studies, the Third International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) of 1999 and the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) of 2000, showed that mandating school at a very young age did not significantly improve subsequent academic performance. Finland, in fact, ranked consistently high in all subjects in spite of the fact that the country does not require school attendance until age seven. Neighboring Sweden, which provides its citizens with one of the most extensive tax-funded early childhood education systems in Europe, earned only an average ranking on the PISA study. 

Public education defenders will vigorously protest that their goals are consistent with the well-being and integrity of the family, and that they value parental involvement in the education of their young children. But parents must inevitably subordinate family goals to the intentions of the government school. Parents are regarded frequently as  incompetent to teach (or supervise teaching), and therefore the sooner children can be brought in to government schools, the better. 

Perhaps one of the most blunt pronouncements of parental incompetence was that of John Swett, superintendent of the California public education system in the 1860s. Swett wrote that “the child should be taught to consider his instructor . . . superior to the parent in point of authority. . . . The vulgar impression that parents have a legal right to dictate to teachers is entirely erroneous. . . . Parents have no remedy as against the teacher.” 

For some, the role of the public school teacher has even assumed messianic content. In 1897, John Dewey asserted that the teacher is “the prophet of the true God, and the usherer in of the true kingdom of God.” 

Compulsory school attendance laws have already produced an educational disaster. Extending those laws to younger children, as the DC bill and the Universal Pre-Kindergarten Act are attempting to do, will merely intensify the damage. There is only one way out—a total separation of school and state. As Ludwig von Mises noted, the school cannot be deprived of its political character as long as it remains a public and compulsory institution. There is, in fact, only one solution: the state, the government, the laws must not in any way concern themselves with schooling or education. Public funds must not be used for such purposes. The rearing and instruction of youth must be left entirely to parents and to private associations and institutions. .FM 


Timothy D. Terrell is assistant professor of economics at Wofford College and an adjunct scholar of the Ludwig von Mises Institute. He can be contacted at Readings: “Mandatory Kindergarten Is Unnecessary,” National Center for Home Education, February 4, 2002. [ 000000/00000028.asp]; Ludwig von Mises, Liberalism [http://www.mises. org/liberal/ch3sec3.asp]. Murray N. Rothbard, Education: Free & Compulsory (Auburn, Ala.: Ludwig von Mises Institute, 1999); Rousas J. Rushdoony, The Messianic Character of American Education (Philadelphia: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1963).


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