Come to the Guerilla War

You Are Cordially Invited to a Guerilla War

by James Ostrowski by James Ostrowski


Recent events in Buffalo have me thinking about government schools again. Fourteen Catholic schools closed including the neighborhood school my children happily attend. We were devastated. My son asked me, "Are you going to send us to a government school?" I said, "No way would we ever do that!"

Long story short. The government school system is finally beginning to realize its original mission: to knock off Catholic schools. The nuns and brothers had fought the good fight for 150 years. Without reinforcements, Catholic schools, with one-half of all private school students, are in deep trouble.

Government’s de facto monopoly over primary and secondary education is our single biggest problem, a problem that is genetically linked to all our other political problems.

As I wrote in 2001:

The government school monopoly strengthens the state and harms the cause of liberty in many ways. On the state and local levels, education accounts for an enormous percentage of expenditures. It is absurd to suggest, as most Republican candidates do, that they will cut the size of state government but not touch the school system. Federal expenditures on education are still relatively small, but wait five minutes: the foot is in the door.

Next comes the complex web of educational special interest groups: teachers and their unions, suppliers, publishers, administrators, and even parents who get a free babysitting service. Three million government schoolteachers form a powerful army for statism. Since every subsidy is an argument for every other subsidy, the education lobby rolls logs with the best of them. They support not only the cause of ever-greater expenditures on education, but also the entire statist program of endlessly creative wealth redistribution and the ever-increasing bureaucratization and regulation of society.

Most importantly, public schools allow government to determine the political ideas that children are allowed to learn about. Libertarians are always struck by the consistently statist perspective exhibited by the vast majority of government school inmates and parolees. These students just “know” that we needed the Constitution because the nation was in chaos, FDR saved us from the Great Depression, and TR saved us from the “robber barons.”

Such ideas and more and worse are inculcated in young minds when they are soft and malleable. They gradually harden like concrete long before any of our libertarian institutions can supply an antidote. Is it not the case that most lovers of liberty formed their views as teenagers or young adults? I personally do not know a single person who became a libertarian after age thirty. You have to get them while they’re young or forget them. Presently, that task is impossible.

The present ban on religion in government schools aids the statist viewpoint. As all totalitarian regimes know, religions posit a scheme of values prior to and superior to the state. It is not the case, however, that no religion is taught in government schools. If religion is broadly defined to include even “one’s ultimate concern,” it becomes obvious that the religion taught in government schools is that interventionist government is the ultimate human value. Government schools forbid the teaching of any religion but state worship.

Government schools introduce and reinforce the bureaucratic mentality, the opposite of a free and spontaneous attitude toward life. To the bureaucratic mind, life is about unthinking adherence to a set of arbitrary rules of behavior established by superiors in a chain of command. No heavy thinking is required; just follow orders. By their very nature, such rules do not differentiate between individuals, but treat all as a mass. Twelve years of habituation to such a mode of living generally inoculates students from resistance to the bureaucratic state they will be suffering under for the remainder of their lives.

Though many government school products survive the experience with their minds intact, many hundreds of thousands emerge ill-equipped, intellectually or morally, to function independently in today’s world. These misfits fill out the ranks of petty criminals, welfare recipients, drug users, and beggars of one form or another. Naturally, the existence of such folk leads to calls for more social service programs, police, prisons, and more spending on education! In this way, government creates its own demand, as the failure of one government program provides the impetus for the next one.

It is therefore no exaggeration to state that government control over education is the ultimate foundation of statism today. No substantial progress for liberty will occur unless this foundation is cracked.

What accounts for the apparent lack of success of the modern libertarian movement, which has, after all, spent millions for decades now? Perhaps that lack of success can be attributed to our failure to smash the government school monopoly.

We have tried, I guess. Proposing vouchers and tax credits; encouraging home schooling; nothing has worked so far though home schooling has been the best political strategy yet as I argued in 2001.

Nearly ninety percent of students are in government schools. Ninety percent of the population is subjected to a pro-government worldview for their 13 most impressionable years. And we expect to convince those folks that big government sucks! Government is about the only thing they’ve ever known. Many students see their teachers more than they see their parents.

I pointed out in another article why modern jurors are so submissive to judges and prosecutors: "ninety percent of jurors went to government schools and heard all that propaganda" for thirteen years! "Passive submission to a governmental authority figure is imprinted on their brains."

At the state and local level, the education lobby is the strongest political force. You can measure the strength of a lobby by their share of annual spending. Spending on schools is approaching half a trillion dollars each year. That leaves many millions for lobbying and buying politicians to keep the scam going.

Pickett’s Charge showed the difficulty of direct frontal assaults on entrenched positions. The same is true in politics. Politics is after all the continuation of war by the same means (force) with better public relations. “When one door closes another door opens; but we so often look so long and so regretfully upon the closed door, that we do not see the ones which open for us.” (A. G. Bell) When conventional warfare is not an option, try guerilla warfare:

Guerrilla warfare (also spelled guerilla) is a method of unconventional combat by which small groups of combatants attempt to use mobile and surprise tactics (ambushes, raids, etc) to defeat a foe, often a larger, less mobile, army. Typically the smaller guerrilla army will either use its defensive status to draw its opponent into terrain which is better suited to the former or take advantage of its greater mobility by conducting surprise attacks at vulnerable targets, often deep in enemy territory. (Wikipedia)

[For numbskulls only: my reference to guerilla warfare is a metaphor.]

Libertarians’ efforts at educational reform have failed because they use conventional political means of trying to persuade the government to change. However, the government school citadel can be assaulted from a different direction: by a direct appeal to parents. Government schools cannot survive without parents choosing to send their children to them. There is a constitutional right to choose a private school.

How do we do this? By explaining to parents that private schools are good for their children and government schools are bad for their children. It’s that simple. If we can convince just a few percent of families to switch over to private schools, momentum can be generated and a snowball effect can result. With more students, private school tuitions can decline because of economies of scale. With fewer government school students, governments can be embarrassed into cutting their budgets. Thankfully, some funding formulas are based on the number of students. That will, we hope, lower taxes and put more discretionary income into the hands of parents which will in turn encourage ever further defections from the government schools. Lower taxes and better education will also stimulate economic growth and provide ever-greater discretionary income to keep the drive away from government schools alive.

We need to encourage educational entrepreneurs to start new ventures in low-cost, but high-quality teaching. Web-based programs with live video and audio feedback are a promising avenue to pursue. How about a part-time school designed for part-time home school students that would specialize in teaching subjects such as trigonometry that are more difficult for parents to master? Such schools could also provide sports and other extracurricular activities that parents and students desire. A half-time school might charge tuition of $2,500 per student, a figure within the means of many families.

Here’s another free idea that can make a clever entrepreneur rich: a school that accommodates various religions not by silencing them but by offering instruction in them for those who desire it. In other words, how about a school that offers religion classes for each sect at some point during the week and where tolerance for religion is otherwise encouraged?

Such ventures will be encouraged if a movement away from government schools can be jumpstarted.

I propose a carrot and stick approach. First, we emphasize the benefits of private schools. Then, we explain the many perils and pitfalls of government schools.

Fast Facts about Private Schools

  • One in four schools is a private school;
  • One child in nine attends a private school;
  • Private schools produce an annual savings to taxpayers estimated at more than $48,000,000,000;
  • Private school students perform better than their public school counterparts on standardized achievement tests;
  • Ninety percent of private high school graduates attend college, compared to 66 percent of public high school graduates;
  • Private school students from low socio-economic backgrounds are more than three times more likely than comparable public school students to attain a bachelor’s degree by their mid-20s, meaning that private schools contribute to breaking the cycle of poverty for their students;
  • Private schools are racially, ethnically, and economically diverse. Twenty-three percent of private school students are students of color; twenty-eight percent are from families with annual incomes under $50,000;
  • Private secondary school students are nearly 50 percent more likely to take AP or IB courses in science and math than public school students;
  • The participation of private school students in community service projects is significantly higher than their public school counterparts.

This won’t necessarily be pretty. Feelings will be hurt. That’s the whole point. To wake people up to the damage they are doing to their children by sending them to government schools! Ouch! I said it. Let the hate mail flow like lava.

I sometimes chide my friends who send their precious offspring to government schools, "How can you send your children to a school whose teachers can’t be fired unless they commit a serious felony?"

We can likewise ask:

  1. How can you send your children to schools with a propensity towards violence?
  2. How can you send your children to schools where drug use is rampant?
  3. Where sex, drugs and rock and roll is the predominant cultural value?
  4. Where test scores are low?
  5. Where the dropout rate is high?
  6. Where there’s a dumbing down of standards to accommodate the students who don’t want to be there?
  7. Where your children will sit next to students who are there because their parents want a free babysitting service?
  8. Where any positive mention of your religion is illegal?
  9. Where teachers are frequently physically assaulted by students and students are sexually abused by teachers?

I am sure to be accused of foisting a guilt trip on parents. I plead guilty to that charge. That’s exactly what I’m doing.

So I say abandon hope all ye who seek to move our bought and paid for state legislators to abolish the educational monopoly they created.

Instead, join me in launching a guerilla war against the greatest obstacle in the path of truly free, liberal and tolerant society: the government school monopoly.

Schedule an "intervention" with your friends and family who send their children into the lion’s den. Exercise some tough love today. They’ll thank you for it ten years from now.

This will not be easy; but it will be a velvet revolution without bloodshed. Libertarians must be committed to exhausting all avenues of peaceful change.

Speaking of which, you might start your harangue with the story of what happened in Colorado on April 20, 1999….

April 21, 2007

James Ostrowski is an attorney in Buffalo, New York and author of Political Class Dismissed: Essays Against Politics, Including "What’s Wrong With Buffalo." See his website.