One of the most common arguments that school authorities use to justify public schools is that all children have a “right” to an education. Public-school apologists claim that all children have a right to an education, and that only the existence of a massive, compulsory, government-controlled public-school system can “guarantee” that right.
As I will explain below, the claim that all children have a right to an education ends up hurting the very children it was intended to help. I will therefore ask a seemingly shocking question — do all children have a right to an education? If they do, public-school apologists are correct in assuming that we need government to guarantee that right so no child gets left behind.
What is an economic “right” such as the alleged right to an education? A “right” means that a person has a claim on the rest of society (other Americans) to give him some product or service he wants, regardless of whether he can pay for it or not. For example, if we claimed that everyone has a right to a car, that would mean if someone couldn’t afford a car, government would give that person the money to buy it (the payment might be called a car voucher).
Similarly, if we say that all children have a right to an education, regardless of their parent’s ability to pay tuition, then only government can guarantee this alleged right. Government has to guarantee this right because no private, for-profit school will admit a student if the parents don’t pay tuition (unless the student gets a scholarship). If a private school doesn’t get paid for its services, it soon goes out of business.
Local or state governments can guarantee this alleged right in two basic ways. They can own and operate all the public schools and force all children to attend these schools, or they can give subsidies (vouchers) to parents to pay for tuition in the private school of their choice. Since most school authorities strongly oppose vouchers, that means they support only a government-controlled system of compulsory public schools and school taxes to guarantee children this alleged right to an education.
But government produces nothing by itself. Government gets its money by taxing us. To guarantee this alleged right to a product or service, government tax collectors must therefore take money from one person to give it to another. They must take from Peter to pay Paul, as the saying goes. So, in effect, a person who demands food, housing, or medical care as an alleged right, is really demanding that government tax agents steal money from his neighbor to give him an unearned benefit he didn’t work for.
Education, like housing or medical care, does not grow free in nature. Just as someone must pay doctors, nurses, and hospitals for all the services they provide, someone must also pay for teachers’ salaries, textbooks, janitorial services, and school upkeep. Other than air, nothing that we need is free.
The average public school now gets over $7,500 a year per student, paid from compulsory taxes. To guarantee education as a “right,” local, state, and federal governments must tax all Americans to pay for public schools. All of us are taxed, whether or not we have school-age children or think these schools are worth paying for. So when some parents claim that their children have a right to an education, they are really demanding that their local or state government steal money from their neighbors to pay for their children’s education.
Here’s an analogy that might help clarify this issue. Imagine that your unemployed neighbor comes to you and asks you to lend him money to pay for his children’s education. You reply that, though you sympathize with his problem, your answer is no. He responds by saying that he is poor, points out that you have a big house and a job, and insists that his children have a “right” to an education. You say, “Sorry, my answer is still no because I need my money for my own children’s education.” Suppose that your neighbor then gets real mad, pulls out a gun, puts it to your head, and says, “I asked you nicely. I told you my children need an education. You have a job, and I’m unemployed, so you have a moral duty to give me your money.” Then he clicks back the hammer on the gun.
Does your neighbor have the right to put a gun to your head and steal your money because his children “need” an education? He has no such right. Nor does he, or any number of your neighbors, have the right to rob you by getting government to be their enforcer — by pressuring local governments to take your money through school taxes. Any school system that uses compulsory taxes is a system based on the notion that theft is moral if it’s for a good cause. No goal, not even educating children, justifies legalized theft.
It is only natural that all parents want the best education for their children, but do good intentions justify stealing from your neighbor? A mugger on the street who puts a knife to your throat and demands your money also has good intentions — he wants to make his life better with your money. One of the Ten Commandments says, “Thou shalt not steal.” It does not say, “Thou shalt not steal, except if you need tuition money to educate your child.” Since no one has a right to steal from his neighbor, no one, including children, has a “right” to an education.
Some might argue that I may be correct on this issue when it comes to adults, but surely we can’t punish innocent children for their parent’s failures? Just because parents are poor or unemployed, why should innocent children suffer and be denied an education? The answer to that question is one that many people find hard to accept, yet it is true — there are no guarantees in life, not for adults or for children. Good intentions to alleviate a problem do not justify hurting other people by stealing from them. Two wrongs do not make a right.
Moreover, if we agree that children have a right to an education because their parents are poor, then shouldn’t they also have a right to food, a bicycle, a nice house in the suburbs, and designer clothes? If poor kids (and all children) have an alleged right to an education, don’t they also have an alleged right to everything else that other kids have whose parents are well-off? Why not then say that anyone, poor, middle-class, or rich who has less money than his neighbor, has the “right” to steal from his neighbor? Where do we stop if some people can legally steal from others because they claim their kids need this or that?
The answer is, we don’t stop, and we haven’t stopped. That is why our country has turned into a devouring welfare state that is drowning in debt. When I use the word “welfare,” I don’t mean only for the poor. Rich, poor, and middle-class alike in America now claim the right to everything from corporate tax breaks and subsidies, to price supports for farmers, to Medicare, to rent subsidies for unwed mothers. When we let government steal money from taxpayers to give unearned benefits or subsidies to special-interest groups, we open up a Pandora’s box. We become a nation of thieves stealing from each other. Is this what we want America to become?
It is true that a free market does not and can not guarantee that all children have enough to eat or live in a comfortable house. Likewise, a free-market education system in which all parents have to pay for their children’s education obviously can’t guarantee a quality education for every child.
However, government-controlled public schools also can’t guarantee that every child gets a quality education. These failed schools can barely teach our children to read. Also, neither system can make guarantees because there are no guarantees in life, and because each child’s abilities, personality, and family background are so different that such guarantees are impossible. The real question, then, is not which system is perfect, but which system is more likely to give the vast majority of children a quality education that most parents could afford?
Public schools fail and betray millions of children, year after year. The only “right” the public-school system gives to school children is the right to suffer through a mind-numbing, third-rate education for twelve years.
In contrast, the free-market, while not perfect, gives us all the wondrous goods and services we buy every day, such as cars, fresh food, computers, refrigerators, and televisions. The superbly efficient and competitive free market gives us all these marvelous products at prices that most people can afford. Even the poorest American families today have a car, refrigerator, and sometimes two televisions in their homes. If we want to discover which system would give the vast majority of children a quality education at reasonable prices, I think we have the answer — the free market, hands down.
We therefore don’t need a failed public-school system to enforce an alleged right to an education, when there is no such right in the first place. Each parent should be responsible for paying for their own children’s education, just as they pay for their children’s food or clothing.
Finally, public-school apologists use this alleged right to an education to justify keeping the public-school dinosaur alive, in spite of these schools’ never-ending failure. Many public-school apologists who claim that children have a right to an education do so out of good intentions. They want to give all children a chance to get a decent education. But good intentions mean worse than nothing if they lead to dismal consequences. This alleged right to an education lets government bureaucrats have tyrannical control over our children’s minds and future.
The “right” to an education requires a massive government-controlled public-school system to enforce that right. But it is this same public-school system that cripples the education and lives of millions of children. So, ironically, the alleged right to an education is the worst thing we can offer our children.
Most low-income families don’t need government education handouts anymore in the form of allegedly “free” public schools. Parents today can buy quality, low-cost food in a competitive, free-market food industry full of grocery stores and supermarkets. In the same way, parents today can give their kids a quality education using low-cost Internet private schools and homeschooling.
Only when we reject the notion that all children have a “right” to an education will we get government out of the education business, permanently. Only a fiercely-competitive free-market education system can give kids the quality, low-cost education they deserve.