Public schools = public menace?

For several years, I have been preparing an anthology on Race and Liberty: The Classical Liberal Tradition of Civil Rights (forthcoming, Independent Institute). The issue of religion intersects with race again and again.

One of the contributors to the volume, R.C. Hoiles (editor, Freedom Newspapers), was a devout Christian libertarian who argued that segregation and government suppression of civil rights were the natural consequence of public schooling. This theme recurred in 1950s issues of The Freeman and led Milton Friedman and others to advocate “school choice.” You can find many of these at the fabulous archive of Freeman back issues.

A recent news item from Oregon reminded me of the coercive nature of public schools, which trap so many individuals—particularly the poor—in “not-so-free” institutions. 

The argument for separation of church and state arose, not because of the lone atheist kid profiled in today’s media, but in the “Progressive” public school war on Catholics and Jews. When the Ku Klux Klan persuaded Oregon voters to pass a compulsory public schooling law, the great classical liberal lawyer Louis Marshall challenged the law in court (Marshall is tied with Frederick Douglass for the most entries in my civil rights anthology). In 1922, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that parents had a right to educate their children as they see fit: including Catholic parochial schools, Jewish yeshivas, or home schooling.

(Disclosure: I have one daughter in Catholic school and the other is home schooled. We “voted with our feet” by walking away from State schools.)

The Pierce v. Society of Sisters opinion is located here.

An advertisement (and political cartoon) from the Oregon History Project.

The last great mission of Milton Friedman was to promote school choice. Friedman made a utilitarian argument: Schools will be “better” if parents were “free to choose.” However, public schooling is an act of coercion, thus violating one of the first principles of freedom. Taxation without individual consent is theft. “Collective” consent is meaningless when a “tyranny of the majority” coerces an individual to do what he or she believes is wrong. For more on this point, see the entry on public schooling and religion by James R. Otteson, “Freedom of Religion and Public Schooling,” The Challenge of Liberty.

School choice, as it stands, is a step in the right direction. Let’s hope future generations walk a bit faster toward true educational freedom—with or without crucifixes adorning school clothing.

Jonathan Bean is a Research Fellow at the Independent Institute, Professor of History at Southern Illinois University, and editor of the Independent book, Race & Liberty in America: The Essential Reader.
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