Reader submitted. Original Article from Kerry McDonald, Senior Education Fellow, Foundation for Economic Education
The New York Times ran a piece called “When School Is Voluntary,” by columnist David Leonhardt. It praises the merits of compulsory schooling while shaming the parents who want to continue with remote learning and the schools that want to accommodate them.
Of course, district “Zoom schooling” is still public schooling and still very much in the clutches of school compulsion, as Leonhardt himself admits. But the contempt for parental choice and educational freedom that led to the initiation of 19th century compulsory schooling laws in the US is palpable in his column.
“More than a century ago, U.S. states put in place laws requiring that children attend school,” wrote Leonhardt. “The guiding principle was that school mattered too much to children’s lives to be a matter of individual choice. Helping on the family farm or getting a paid job was not a good enough excuse to drop out. Nor was parental convenience or preference. And students could not leave school simply because they wanted to. Mandatory schooling laws did an enormous amount of good.”
He leaves out the part about how compulsory schooling laws were passed in an effort to indoctrinate immigrants, particularly Irish Catholic immigrants who were so appalled by purportedly secular but overtly Protestant public schools that they created their own parallel system of parochial schools throughout the 19th century.
These schools consistently came under attack from statists who wanted all children to learn in mandatory public schools. The battle came to a peak in the 1920s when Oregon banned private schools (which were mostly Catholic schools at the time). The US Supreme Court thankfully overturned this law asserting: “The child is not the mere creature of the State.”
There was a clear disdain for parents who challenged the dominant state schooling model more than a century ago. The architect of the American compulsory schooling movement, Horace Mann, believed that parents, and particularly poor and immigrant parents, stood in the way of the state in molding and elevating children. The state, according to Mann and his allies, knew better than parents what was best for kids. “We, then, who are engaged in the sacred cause of education, are entitled to look upon all parents as having given hostages to our cause,” he wrote in 1840. (Don’t forget that Mann homeschooled his own children but thought that other people’s children needed to be educated by the state.)
The Times writer offers a similar perspective in his column. He expresses concern over the one-quarter of parents who, according to recent polls, plan to continue with what he considers to be subpar remote public schooling this fall: “The families who choose to do so will span every demographic group, but they are likely to be disproportionately lower-income, Black and Latino,” Leonhardt wrote. “Remote schooling, in other words, may be more akin to dropping out than it is to attending in-person school,” he later concluded.
Compulsory schooling is incompatible with freedom and several positive things would happen if these laws were eliminated. For starters, a flourishing free market of education possibilities would sprout and parents, not the government, would call the shots. And yes, parents are quite capable of choosing how their children should be educated.
A society defined by freedom over force—consent over coercion—is a happier, healthier, and more prosperous one. We should move away from government compulsion in all areas of life. Education is a good place to begin.