There are few rights more fundamental than bringing up your children as you choose. Strangely we have largely given up that right. For more than a century government has been the main provider of K to 12 education in the United States, as well as in other major countries. Our education system is the same as Russia’s and China’s, centrally planned and government funded.
Education is something that families and communities have been doing for thousands of years, often without government involvement. Education is simple, without large economies of scale or significant natural barriers to entry.
Education is a matter of thought and in its natural state benefits from the same diversity and freedom as every other kind of thought. We do not have uniformity or monopolies regarding our churches, what we read, or how we express ourselves. It is nonsensical to have uniformity and monopolies for schooling.
Does government’s monopoly produce uniform high quality? Just the opposite. In the last two decades we have had No Child Left Behind, Common Core, and Every Student Succeeds. Every few years there will be a new slogan but the frequent mediocrity and high costs of government schooling will not change.
Given the long standing problems of government schools, how do they keep their 90+% monopoly market share? They keep that share through one major means, requiring anyone choosing alternative schooling to pay twice, once in taxes for government schools they do not use and a second time for schools of choice.
To decisively reduce government’s monopoly power, to give families real choice, and to spur improvement in all schools with real competition requires giving control over some or all school funds to families and not to governments.
Wyoming’s state constitution has something to say about such reforms. Article 1 section 19 states that no state money shall go to a sectarian or religious institution. Article 7 section 1 refers to a “uniform” system of public instruction. Article 7 section 4 and section 7 limit the use of school funds to public schools. Article 7 section 8 prohibits school funds from going to private or religious schools. Despite the Supreme Court’s recent decision in Espinoza v. Montana Dept. of Revenue, any movement for real school choice in Wyoming should amend our state Constitution to legitimize any school choice plan.
To amend the Wyoming state constitution requires a two thirds vote in each house of the legislature and approval by the people at a general election. That is a high bar. However the Republican party holds overwhelming majorities, much greater than two thirds, in both houses of our legislature. The national Republican platform has supported school choice for decades. Amending our state constitution to allow comprehensive school choice is politically feasible.
Reform is possible and should be designed within two constraints. First, no taxpayer should ever be compelled to pay for a religious or sectarian education that he or she does not agree with, as that would be an establishment of religion. Second, government schools have high fixed costs and particular costs for complying with regulations and serving students with special needs, so a good argument can be made for not taking every dollar spent per student if a student leaves.
A simple form of school choice could be based on annual grade-level examinations for Wyoming resident students who are outside of the government system. These examinations would test purely secular knowledge. The maximum funding to a student’s family would be half of the government’s per student spending. We are currently spending about $17,000 per student in the Wyoming government system, so a student could receive up to $8,500 if he or she scores 100% on the grade-level exam, scaled down for lower scores, so $6,800 for an 80% score. Some students will get more money than their education costs, a good way to save for college.
As taxpayers would pay only for secular knowledge, it would not be relevant as to whether that knowledge is acquired in a Catholic school, Muslim school, Montessori school, or home school. Taxpayers would never pay for the religious part of instruction as only secular results would be rewarded. As money would not go directly to any non-government school there would be no reason to regulate such schools.
Because some students in Wyoming are already outside the government schools, such a system of school choice has an initial cost. However as students leave the government system, each taking at most half of their funding with them, the money available per student in the government system actually increases.
Radical school choice options will cause families to move to Wyoming and keep families in Wyoming. New non-government schools will open and Wyoming will become a center of education innovation.
The rationale for government schooling, other than social indoctrination, is the fear that families could not afford education without government provision. Perhaps the day will come when we take the common sense step of simply transferring monies to families with children and get government entirely and permanently out of the education business. A separation of school and state, as rigorous as the separation of church and state, would be a giant step toward a free society.
Martin L. Buchanan is a writer and software developer. Email: MartinLBuchanan@gmail.com.