How Did We Get Into This Mess?

Note: This is the introduction to Government Schools Are Bad for Your Kids

u201CSocialists, who were very active in the public school movement, began operating covertly in secret cells in America as early as 1829, before the word socialism was even invented.u201D

~ Samuel L. Blumenthal [1]

A quick history lesson

This isn’t a history book. It is a book about why you should take your kids out of government schools. Yet, misconceptions about history may discourage some readers from fairly considering the evidence and arguments that are to follow. What I ask is that you keep an open mind. Put your preconceptions aside and take a fresh look at this important subject. That will be easier to do after a brief review of the origins and nature of the government school as we know it today.

Were government schools established because private society and families refused to educate the children, resulting in lifelong ignorance and illiteracy? Were the motives of the reformers pure, selfless and concerned only with the well-being of the children? Surely, after these reforms were in place, school attendance rose, illiteracy disappeared and the quality of education vastly improved.

None of those things happened!

Contrary to myth, government schools were not immaculately conceived. The common mindset with respect to this or that government program is that it always existed and must always exist or the end of the world would be nigh. However, government schools did not always exist. Before compulsory, tax-supported government schools became the norm around 1890, American society had survived and thrived without them for over 200 years [2] while creating one of the most successful and literate societies in human history. The United States was well on its way to surpassing prior world leader Great Britain in per capita GDP before even half of its states adopted compulsory education. In fact, as late as 1900, when the United States had unquestionably become a world power, only u201C10 percent of teenagers were enrolled in high school,u201D [3] and just six percent graduated. [4]

James Tooley, a researcher who has studied the shift from private to government schools worldwide, writes:

u201CA broad range of evidence from Victorian England and Wales and nineteenth century America shows that near-universal schooling was achieved before the state intervened in education. The evidence suggests that the impact was to curb what was already flourishing―so much so that the picture of education in this and previous centuries seems far bleaker than it would have been had the private alternative not been suppressed and supplanted.u201D [5]

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In sharp contrast, today in Western countries with compulsory free schooling, as much as twenty percent of the population is functionally illiterate. Schooling may be universal; education is not. [6] Even universal schooling is a myth. As many as ten percent of government students are absent on the average day, more than twice the rate of private school students. [7]

If government schools were not founded on necessity, what was their genesis? There were a number of political, religious and ideological forces behind the institution of compulsory government schools. Notably, none included the widespread failure of private schools and families to educate children.

Here is a quick review of the main historical roots of compulsory government schools in the Western World. It starts with Martin Luther who urged the German princes to u201Ccompel the people to send their children to schoolu201D in 1524, because u201Cwe are warring with the devil.u201D [8] Historian Murray Rothbard explains:

u201CThe Reformers advocated compulsory education for all as a means of inculcating the entire population with their particular religious views, as an indispensable aid in effective u2018war with the devil’ and the devil’s agents. For Luther, these agents constituted a numerous legion: not only Jews, Catholics, and infidels, but also all other Protestant sects. Luther’s political ideal was an absolute State guided by Lutheran principles and ministers. The fundamental principle was that the Bible, as interpreted by Luther, was the sole guide in all things. He argued that the Mosaic code awarded to false prophets the death penalty, and that it is the duty of the State to carry out the will of God. The State’s duty is to force those whom the Lutheran Church excommunicates to be converted back into the fold. There is no salvation outside the Lutheran Church, and it is not only the duty of the State to compel all to be Lutherans, but its sole object. Such was the goal of the initial force behind the first compulsory school system in the Western world, and such was the spirit that was to animate the system.u201D

John Calvin was the second major religious figure to endorse compulsory schooling. Like Luther, he did so to spread his religious doctrine by government force. And like Luther, he offered the political authorities this inducement: his schools would preach u201Cthe duty of obedience to rulers.u201D [9] That must have been music to the ears of the political authorities of the time.

Next comes Prussia. Under Luther’s influence, the militaristic and authoritarian Prussians pioneered compulsory education in Europe. [10] Rothbard writes,

u201CModern Prussian despotism emerged as a direct result of the disastrous defeat inflicted by Napoleon. In 1807, the Prussian nation began to reorganize and gird itself for future victories. Under King Frederick William III, the absolute State was greatly strengthened. His famous minister, von Stein, began by abolishing the semi-religious private schools, and placing all education directly under the Minister of the Interior. In 1810, the ministry decreed the necessity of State examination and certification of all teachers. In 1812, the school graduation examination was revived as a necessary requirement for the child’s departure from the state school, and an elaborate system of bureaucrats to supervise the schools was established in the country and the towns. It is also interesting that it was this reorganized system that first began to promote the new teaching philosophy of Pestalozzi, who was one of the early proponents of u2018progressive education.’ Hand in hand with the compulsory school system went a revival and great extension of the army, and in particular the institution of universal compulsory military service.u201D

The American u201Creformersu201D would later look to Prussia as a model for an American system. Professor Richard M. Ebeling summarizes how the Prussian model lives on today:

u201C[M]odern, universal compulsory education has its origin in the 19th century Prussian idea that it is the duty and responsibility of the state to indoctrinate each new generation of children into being good, obedient subjects who will be loyal and subservient to political authority and to the legitimacy of the political order. Young minds are to be filled with a certain set of ideas that reflect the vision of the official state educators concerning u2018proper behavior’ and u2018good citizenship.’

u201COver the generations, the content of what proper behavior and good citizenship means has changed, with changes in prevailing political and cultural currents in America, but the fact remains that the essence of the system was designed with that purpose in mind, and still operates on that basis. The parent is viewed as a backward and harmful influence in the formative years of the child’s upbringing, an influence that must be corrected for and replaced by the u2018enlightened’ professional teacher who has been trained, appointed and funded by the state. The public school, therefore, is a u2018reeducation camp’ in which the child is to be remade in the proper u2018politically correct’ image.u201D [11]

Compulsory education in America also came in through religious machinations. Scholar Diane Ravitch describes the pro-government school forces:

u201CThe reformers launched a campaign known as the common school movement from about 1830—1860. Its leaders were mainly aligned with the Whig Party and with organized Protestant religions. Neither Catholics nor Jacksonian Democrats liked the centralization aspects of this movement. . . . The common school movement shared the rhetoric and fervor of evangelical Protestantism; many of its leaders were ordained Protestant ministers who saw themselves as men with a mission.u201D [12]

Part of the mission was anti-Catholicism. One of the leading promoters of government schools u201Cinspired anti-Catholic riotsu201D in Baltimore. [13] u201CThe Nativists . . . believed that foreigners and especially Catholics were a threat to the American tradition of liberty.u201D [14] Ravitch writes that the reformers were u201Ceager to prevent Catholics from obtaining any public funding for their schools and require the use of the Protestant Bible in the public schools.u201D [15] The Protestant political majority was concerned that Catholics were being educated in their own religious schools. Thus, states began to subsidize Protestant schools with tax dollars. The u201Cmissionu201D was finally accomplished when the u201Cevangelical Protestants prevailed in their efforts to exclude Catholic schools from any participation in public funding. . . . the leaders openly and boastfully made anti-Catholicism the dominant theme of their attacks.u201D [16]

Later of course, the Protestants would be hoisted by their own petard when the Supreme Court banned prayer from the government schools in 1963. Those who live by politics shall perish by it. Just as Edward Ross had predicted in the 19th century: u201CWhile the priest is leaving the civil service, the schoolmaster is coming in. As the state shakes itself loose from the church, it reaches out for the school.u201D [17]

Murray Rothbard agrees with Ravitch:

u201CIt was the desire of the Anglo-Saxon majority to tame, channel, and restructure the immigrants, and in particular to smash the parochial school system of the Catholics, that formed the major impetus for educational u2018reform.’u201D [18]

Catholics of course stubbornly retained their own school system in response to the Protestants. So successful were these schools that states started to ban them. They survived this second concerted attack by the nativists including the Ku Klux Klan when the Supreme Court in 1925 held that parents had the right to send their children to private schools. [19]

For 150 years, subsistence-wage nuns, brothers and priests allowed the Catholic schools to compete by keeping tuition low. However, because of a sharp decline in their numbers, and their replacement by lay teachers paid at market rates, the government school system is finally beginning to realize its original mission: to knock off Catholic schools. The religious orders fought the good fight for 150 years. Without a major change in policy that levels the playing field, Catholic schools, with one-half of all private school students, will soon be in deep, deep trouble. Projecting out current trends, they will dwindle down to a few schools for the children of bankers, corporate executives and doctors that will hardly deserve the name u201CCatholicu201D which means universal.

Catholic Schools/Enrollment [20]


No. of schools

No. of students










It is significant that the Whigs supported the movement towards government schools. As economic historian Thomas DiLorenzo has emphasized, they were the big-government party in an era of small government inspired by Jefferson. [21] Whig leader Henry Clay favored the American System of paper money inflation, pork barrel projects, and high tariffs, a way to subsidize big business. [22] It took many, many decades for the Whig’s big government model to be firmly established in America around 1917. Surely, fifty or sixty years of mandatory government schooling contributed to this sad development that plagues us to this day.

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The Republicans, heirs to the Whig legacy of growing government, once in power, did all they could to impose government schools on the conquered South, according to John Chodes. His fine study, Destroying the Republic: Jabez Curry And the Re-education of the Old South, tells the story of how a former Confederate partisan became the tool of Northern foundation money in imposing government schools on the South. Not surprisingly, coercion was present as well since the Union made adoption of government schools a condition of u201Cre-entryu201D into the supposedly u201Cindestructible" Union. [23]

Robert Owen, an early socialist thinker and militant atheist wholeheartedly endorsed government schools as part of his utopian egalitarian scheme. [24] According to Samuel Blumenthal, u201Cto the Owenites . . . it was clear that national public education was the essential first step on the road to socialism and that this would require a sustained effort of propaganda and political activism over a long period of time.u201D [25]

Ideology usually masks underlying material interests and so it was with the government schools. Special interest groups were integrally involved in lobbying for government schools. The National Education Association, which gradually evolved into today’s trade union organization with the same name, was heavily involved in lobbying for compulsory schools. They endorsed the concept in 1897. [26]

So, government schools were not established out of any dire need for them but rather for a variety of crass religious, political and economic motives. They were not immaculately conceived but rather were born out of a toxic stew of religious absolutism, Prussian militarism, utopian socialist leveling and special interest greed and power lust.

Religious conservatives were hoodwinked into supporting a regime that would later turn against them:

u201CBy 1832 the religious conservatives had become more alarmed at the invasion of America by the Roman Catholics than by the heresies of the Unitarians. Someone had persuaded the conservatives that public education would be theirs to control once it became universal. And it was this kind of wishful thinking that permitted many conservative educators and ministers to support a cause so completely dominated by the liberals and so quietly manipulated by covert socialists.u201D [27]

This book is concerned with the current state of government schools compared to the available alternatives. That is the subject of chapters one through eight. Here, it will suffice to emphasize that government schools have failed in what could be considered their prime task. Many Americans are functionally illiterate. [28] Absentee and dropout rates are also high. Moreover, the output of government schools is generally mediocre and their performance has worsened as local citizen and parental control has given way to control by state and federal bureaucrats, unions and other special interest groups.

Coercion Versus Choice

Contrary to myth, society was filling the need for education remarkably well given the limited resources of the times. Government schools have been a poor replacement. Why?

The basic reason why private schools are superior to government schools is not mysterious, complex, or hard to grasp. Government schools are coercive institutions; private schools are voluntary. Due to compulsory school laws and laws making homeschooling difficult, students whose parents cannot afford private schools and find homeschooling impractical must attend a government school. [29] Taxpayers must pay for them. The rules and regulations governing government schools are rigid, inflexible and by definition, coercive. The teachers unions gain great power over the schools by application of federal and state laws granting them special legal privileges. Throughout the bureaucracy, due to civil service and union rules and laws, it is difficult for anyone to be fired. The schools must accept virtually all students whether they want them or not and whether or not they are fit for a classroom. Students and parents and even teachers who do not like the way the schools are run have few options for changing things.

The main point is that relations among people in government schools are coercive and involuntary. Those with legal power tell those without legal power what to do. Those without power have little choice but to comply.

In the government school system, there is a hierarchy of legal power. Roughly speaking, that hierarchy starts with the state education bureaucracy and proceeds downward to local schools boards, then to the superintendent, down to the principal, the teachers and finally, at the bottom of the pyramid, the students and their parents. On certain issues, the federal government sits at the top of the pyramid and can bark orders at even the state education departments. It is a top-down, coercive, bureaucratic model of decision-making.

What are the ramifications of such a structure of decision-making? Given the assumption of human self-interest, those with power tend to act in accordance with their own interests. They will of course rationalize this behavior by saying they are acting in the public interest or the student’s interest. However, since they have unilateral power over those below them in the pyramid, they can make their decisions without consulting them. They can so act even if the students and the parents are absolutely positive that their decisions are not in their interest. Their opinions simply do not matter. They are mere bystanders.

In sharp contrast, private schools are voluntary institutions. While (non-homeschooled) students must go to some school, they need not go to that school. And they can leave any time. The private school doesn’t have to admit them and can, more or less, kick them out any time. The principal can, subject to contractual severance pay, be fired anytime, or leave any time. The same is true with teachers. Though there may be private school teachers unions in some places, they do not have nearly the power of the government school unions to keep incompetent teachers on the job forever. Instead of being at the bottom of a pyramid of power, families who send their children to private school are on a horizontal plane with the school, itself. They are equal to one another in the power to sever the relationship.

What are the ramifications of the voluntary nature of the private school? There, you can’t merely say or think that your actions are beneficial to the other parties involved. They must actually be perceived as such by those parties. If not, they will walk away. The actions of the parents and students, the teachers and the administration must be mutually beneficial and perceived as such because no one can impose their will on the others for more than a very short period of time, say, till the next school year starts. Everyone must be on their best behavior at all times and no one has the power to exploit the others.

Power flows down

U. S Department of Education ↓ State Education Department ↓ School Board ↓ Superintendent ↓ Principal ↓ Teachers ↓ Parents/Students

The chart above illustrates how power flows down in the government school system. It turns out that information travels in the same direction as power. All top-down bureaucracies share this fatal defect: a shortage of valuable information flowing up to them from below. If you sit at the bottom of a pyramid of power, there is little incentive to pass upward information about the defects of the system or suggestions for improvement. As economist Thomas Sowell explains:

u201CFeedback which can be safely ignored by decision makers is not socially effective knowledge. Effective feedback does not mean the mere articulation of information, but the implicit transmission of others’ knowledge in the explicit form of effective incentives to the recipients.u201D [30]

Private schools receive valuable feedback about their operations from students and parents who expect their complaints to be taken seriously because they have the option of going elsewhere. Government schools are starved of such u201Ceffective knowledge.u201D

One way or another, all the defects of government schools described in this book arise out of the simple, fundamental and inescapable fact that government schools are top-down coercive bureaucracies while private schools are based on voluntary relations. As sociologist Rune Kvist Olsen puts it:

u201CHierarchies are, by their very nature, systems of domination, command and control. They are essentially systems and structures of institutionalized domination. They place people in ranks of superiors and inferiors. Positioning some people above others activates particular u2018drives’ or responses and steering mechanisms to arrange and legitimize someone’s control over others. Researchers have noted that whenever control, coercion, use of submission and domination in the name of rank and position occurs, hostile and destructive forms of interpersonal relationships emerge.u201D [31]

So much for the theory. Let’s look at the facts.


[1] Is Public Education Necessary? (TheParadigm Company: Boise, 1981), p. xii.

[2] Including the colonial period.

[3] Diane Ravitch, u201CAmerican Traditions of Education,u201D in A Primer on America’s Schools, ed., Terry M. Moe (Hoover Institution Press: Stanford, 2001), p. 13.

[4] Eric A. Hanushek, u201CSpending on Schools,u201D in A Primer on America’s Schools, supra at 72.

[5] Id. at 247.

[6] James Tooley, u201CEducation in the Voluntary City,u201D in The Voluntary City: Choice, Community, and Civil Society, ed. D. Beito, Peter Gordon & A. Tabarrok (Independent Institute, Ann Arbor, 2002), p. 223.

[7] Id.

[8] Quoted by Murray N. Rothbard, Education: Free and Compulsory (Ludwig von Mises Institute, Auburn, 1999).

[9] Id.

[10] Id.

[11] Sheldon Richman, Separating School and State: Future of Freedom Foundation (1994) at xiv—xv.

[12] Diane Ravitch, supra at 9.

[13] Id.

[14] Id. at 10.

[15] Id.

[16] Id. at 11.

[17] Separating School and State, supra at 49.

[18] For a New Liberty (New York: Collier Books, rev. ed 1978), p. 125.

[19] Pierce v. Society of Sisters, 268 U.S. 510 (1925).

[20] Source: United States Catholic Elementary and Secondary Schools 2008-2009; The Annual Statistical Report on Schools, Enrollment and Staffing.

[21] See Thomas DiLorenzo, Hamilton’s Curse: How Jefferson’s Arch Enemy Betrayed the American Revolution―and What It Means for Americans Today, (Crown Forum: New York, 2008).

[22] Id.

[23] Algora Pub (2005), p. 141.

[24] Is Public Education Necessary, supra at 79—80.

[25] Id.

[26] Education: Free and Compulsory, supra.

[27] Is Public Education Necessary, supra at 134.

[28] James Tooley, supra at 223.

[29] Child labor is supposed to be a grave evil. How is compulsory schooling not child labor, with coercion added and the paycheck subtracted?

[30] Knowledge and Decisions (Basic Books: New York, 1980), p. 150.

[31] u201CVertical to Horizontal: A New Workplace Reality,u201D April 8, 2006.