January 20, 2006

On Public Education

In the comments to this post on recent attempts to insert intelligent design into public high schools as philosophy, Ed Darrell and I have been having a discussion about more general questions of public education. I thought it would be a good idea to write a piece about my general view of this subject here, since the discussion is looking like its about to get quite long and detailed.

As I see it, there are two issues here: the government's use of tax money to fund education, and the government's exercise of power over how education is done. Furthermore, there are two facets to each of these issues: the legal question (does the US Constitution grant the government this authority?) and the theoretical issue (should the government have this authority?). This makes a total of four topics for discussion. First, however, let's look at a more general question about taxation and the moral justification of government.

Mr. Darrell recently commented, "Paying taxes to education [of] children is not confiscation. Government by consent of the governed is not despotism. Democracy is not dictatorship." Now, there is a sense in which all of this is true. That is, there is a real difference between having your money stolen and used for private purposes for the benefit of the thief, and paying taxes to government which are used for the general benefit of society. There is a real difference between a government "of the people, by the people, and for the people" and a despot who holds power by force. There is a real difference between power being vested in the people, and power being vested in a single man.

However, I believe there is also another sense in which these distinctions are not so pronounced as people generally think. If we choose not to pay for the education of others, we are thrown in prison. In this sense, this type of taxation IS properly described as confiscation; the government applies coercive force to get our money and give it to someone else. "Government by the consent of the governed" is a misnomer: many years ago, the people of this country willingly established our government, but people today are not permitted to "opt out." If someone attempts to remove himself from the social contract (as people, in fact, have), the government applies coercive force to them. I, personally, were I offered the choice, would choose the US government as it is presently constituted over anarchy (although I see much room for improvement in the present government). However, the fact that I would give you money if asked gives you no right to steal it without asking. My rights are violated simply because I have no opportunity to make the choice of whether to give it to you or not. Not ALL of the governed consent. Absolute democracy has been called "the tyranny of the majority," and it might as well be called "dictatorship of the majority." This is why we have a constitutionally limited republic instead. Only those constitutional limitations ensure that our democracy is better than dictatorship. Democracy can, in fact, be worse than dictatorship, because the mob has no direction. It is entirely unpredictable and sways back and forth depending on the mood of the moment. Dictators tend to at least pursue definite ends (although, of course, this can make them worse rather than better, if those ends are evil), rather than to act completely at random. It is the constitutional limitations of our republic, protecting unpopular opinions and limiting what the majority may dictate, that ensures the superiority of our form of government over ditatorship.

Back to the issue at hand. Public education is obviously a good thing. That is, it is good for just anyone to be able to go get an education, and not only the rich. But in this country when we speak of "public education" we don't just mean education available to anyone, we mean socialized education. There are other ways of implementing public education that don't invovle government control, as for instance scholarships offered by private universities and independent charities. These have existed on the primary and secondary education levels as well. However, they have never been good enough to make education truly public, as the socialized system has. I believe that they could be good enough in a culture that placed enough value on education that many many people gave to these charities, but they never have been. As such, I want to make clear that, despite the discussion below, I wouldn't want to suddenly abolish the current system. However, I do think that it is deeply flawed, both in areas of legality and in areas of political morality. Let us discuss the issue at each level off government at which it might be addressed, in turn.

First, the federal government. The federal government has only the authority explicitly granted to it by the Constitution (as the 9th and 10th amendments make clear). The Preamble to the Constitution does not give the government an unlimited power to, for instance, "promote the general welfare." Rather, it merely states that the founders believed that by organizing the government in the way they do in the main body of the Constitution they could "promote the general welfare" and acheive the other ends listed in the Preamble. The subtext, it seems to me, is that if they have failed in these ends, they invite us either to use the amendment process, or to get rid of the Constitution and start over. The Preamble is merely a statement of purpose. Nor does the federal government have unlimited power to make laws which it deems "necessary and proper" - if this were the case, Art. I Sect. 8 of the Constitution would be unnecessary. Rather, Art. I Sect. 8 Para. 18 says that the legislature may "make all laws which shall be necessary and proper for carrying into execution the foregoing powers, and all other powers vested by this Constitution in the government of the United States, or in any department or officer thereof." (emphasis added.) That is, it may make the laws that need to be made in order to make effective use of the powers given to the federal government elsewhere in the Constitution. In a recent marijuana case, Justice Scalia, who has a very conservative (not in the sense of Republican, but in the sense of restricted) reading of this section in general, ruled, for instance, that prohibiting the transport of marijuana across state lines was part of regulating "interstate commerce," and that, because the government could not easily do this without prohibiting marijuana altogether, prohibition of marijuana was "necessary and proper" to "regulation of interstate commerce." But the necessary and proper clause doesn't just say the the government can do whatever it deems necessary and proper. It must be necessary and proper to the exercise of some authority the government has elsewhere.

Now, there is no mention of education in Art. I Sect. 8. I therefore conclude that, on the legal issue, the federal government has no power to give money to education or to regulate it in any way, except of course for regulations on interstate commerce, which may cover "distance learning" programs where the student and the university are in different states, or boarding schools paid for by parents living in another state, or similar circumstances.

Now, how about the moral issue? One person is forced to pay taxes to finance another's education. I see no moral justification for this whatsoever. Sure, I ought to be willing to voluntarily assist with the education of others, but this doesn't justify the government in forcing me. Furthermore, education, especially at the primary level, necessarily involves some degree of indoctrination, and government control of how children are indoctrinated is a serious violation of the rights of parents, especially when the governnment requires children to attend school. Since the No Child Left Behind Act took effect, the federal government does exert a degree of control over primary and secondary school curriculum, and this is a bad thing.

On to the state level. The 10th Amendment makes it clear that the state governments have powers which the federal government does not. As such, it may be the case that a state is legally justified in running a public education system, depending on how its constitution is written. Nothing in the Federal Constitution seems to prohibit this, as long as it cannot be construed as depriving anyone of liberty, which would make it run afoul of the 14th Amendment.

As for the moral issue, I don't see how it is any different on the state level than the federal level, so I must continue to, in principle if not in practice, oppose (socialized) public education, even if it takes place entirely at the state level.

Finally, what if education was handled on the city level? This, I think, would be a great improvement. In fact, most control over education is on this level, and much of it is funded by property tax levys. If a person doesn't like living in a city, there are many states, especially in the western US, that have large areas that are not governed by any city council. This gives the "implicit social contract" argument real application in this situation.

Suppose public education was controlled and funded entirely on the city level. Here I believe that, because of the extra strength granted to the "social contract" argument by the possibility of "opting out," the system could have moral justification. If you don't like what one city does, there are many cities and there are areas that are not in a city. Furthermore, cities could choose whether or not to admit people who do not live in the city and do not pay property taxes. Some cities who were feeling charitable would no doubt admit everyone. Others might not admit outsiders, or might charge them tuition. This would also create better free market competition between schools, since every one could do essentially whatever it wanted. They would all want to have better placement records in colleges and jobs, and parents would want their children in the best one. Schools would be free to innovate in order to acheive this end. This, I believe, would be much better than what currently exists certainly morally, and possibly also practically.

Posted by Kenny at January 20, 2006 12:10 PM
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Perhaps it would do us well if you were to do some studies of how education really works in the U.S. Education is governed by about 15,000 local school boards. Those locally-elected (or in a tiny handful of cases, locally-appointed) boards select the curriculum, hire the teachers, build the schools, and set the tax rates. Education in America has been a locally-run enterprise since 1607, at least.

Is there some material way the No Child Left Behind Act changes that? No. Utah has opted out, for example (and the Bush Administration has caved in).

So I fail to understand what your complaint is about federal involvement in education, since everything you complain about is those areas which are under local control.

We might wonder: In recent years several nations have surpassed the U.S. in achievement by kids in the public education systems. In each of those cases there is a national education authority and a national curriculum with national standards. In the free marketplace of ideas, U.S. education is not competing as well on the elementary and secondary level, with one major exception: The U.S. is still considered the model for egalitarianism. Public schools take in everybody.

Kenny said: Now, there is no mention of education in Art. I Sect. 8. I therefore conclude that, on the legal issue, the federal government has no power to give money to education or to regulate it in any way, except of course for regulations on interstate commerce, which may cover "distance learning" programs where the student and the university are in different states, or boarding schools paid for by parents living in another state, or similar circumstances.

Is there any example you can think of where the federal government goes beyond what you outline?

Posted by: Ed Darrell at January 21, 2006 1:35 PM

Ed, sorry for the delayed response; in the past few days I've moved to the other side of the world, so there was a bit of a lapse in my blogging.

The federal and state governments continue to provide most of the funding for public schools; property taxes levied by local communities just provide a bit of supplemental cash. Furthermore, while not every area is in a city, every area is in a school district, so there is no opting out.

I don't know the specifics of No Child Left Behind, but if Utah has opted out successfully, then the Bush administration has, as you say "caved." The intent of No Child Left Behind was for the federal government to exert control over the curriculum of public schools by creatiing tests students were required to pass in order to graduate, and thus to extend the power of the federal government.

I claim, at any rate, that the federal government exceeds its constitutional authority in creating the Department of Education, in funding the education of students (including myself), and in attempting to prescribe standardized testing for primary and secondary school students.

Furthermore, I claim that the state governments exceed their moral authority in taxing individuals for the purpose of funding public education.

You mention the effects that have occurred and whether the US system is competitive. If there is one thing I am not, I am not a pragmatist. I am an ardent non-consequentialist. If it should happen to be the case that staying within the limits of the moral authority of government prevents us from adequately competing with the education systems of other countries, that's too bad.

Posted by: Kenny at January 25, 2006 6:40 AM

No, NCLB wasn't intended to get the federal government into the curriculum writing business. The law prohibiting feds from writing curricula is still in effect, and nothing in NCLB writes any curricula.

Originally you complained about federal influence on education, and I would have sworn you were advocating local control. Now that you understand federal influence is minor and that local control is the system, you complain about education in general. The alternative is ignorance. Americans have pushed for public support of education officially since about 1650, and provisions for new schools were among the key and most-celebrated features of the laws governing expansion of our nation from at least 1784 onward -- predating even the Constitution.

I can think of no greater moral good than public funding of education -- and that is exactly the case that was made in the original Northwest Ordinance. It's a sad commentary on how fractious we have become, and on how many of you have turned away from traditional American values of high moral standards and public integrity.

But your side isn't going to change things soon. Too much is at stake. We'll keep the fires of liberty burning at least until you return from Greece.

Posted by: Ed Darrell at January 28, 2006 2:53 AM

Nothing in NCLB writes curriculum. What it does do is specify what public school children must learn, which might as well be the same thing. It is the federal government circumventing limitations placed upon it, in the same way they circumvent various limitations by, e.g., denying highway funding to states who don't comply (not that I think the feds should be in charge of funding highways, but that's another story).

I am in support of education. I just want the opportunity to choose voluntarily to support it, rather than having money extorted from me. I am in favor of local control, and I am not at all satisfied that control is on the local level. My general complaint with all of government is simply that we are unable to opt out. This is coercive and a violation of rights.

Yes, if we do the right thing there may sometimes be negative consequences. Such is life. I do think it is critically important that everyone has access to education, and I am willing to give money voluntarily to this cause, I simply have to point out that the government's extortion of money for this cause by threat of force is not morally justified.

Posted by: Kenny at January 28, 2006 2:47 PM

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