Public Education Is Going Down

Recently by Gary North: The Best Turn-Down for a Date I Ever Got, and What I Learned From It


I am working with a young man who turned 18 in December. You know what he got for his birthday? A B.A. degree from an accredited college.

His parents paid for tuition: under $15,000. The college awarded him his degree for work performed. He did the whole thing at home.

Is this a better way to go to college? You bet it is.

Are more parents going to figure this out? I hope to persuade them.

Is boola-boola at a distant campus worth $100,000 or more, plus five years instead of four? Not to wise parents and students.

Is earning a college degree at 18 better than earning a high school diploma? That family thought so.

What do you think?


There have been three models for parent-controlled education throughout history.

Parents teach their own children.A family hires a tutor to teach its children.Families join together and hire a tutor.

The first establishes a family’s control over the content and structure of education. But with the invention of the printing press, families have surrendered control over both content and structure to textbook writers and publishers. The publishers steadily increased their control. The families delegated control to supposed experts: the authors of textbooks.

The second stage adds another layer of delegated authority. The tutor became the expert in what to teach and how. The most famous example in Western history of a family hiring the wrong tutor is the story of Abelard and Heloise, in the early 12th century. He was brilliant; she was brilliant, and they did something really stupid, but predictable. He got her pregnant. Her uncle saw to it that he would not get anyone else pregnant again. Their correspondence survived. It has made for great scripts over the years. The message: monitor the tutor.

The third adds another layer of delegated authority, but with added confusion: several families pay. The students create a greater challenge: the problem of the lowest common denominator. The tutor must adjust his teaching to meet the demands of a committee above him and an intellectually and emotionally mixed group below him. But the cost per student falls through the division of labor.

To get their children educated, parents must compromise: with textbook authors, tutors, and committees. The costs keep falling, but the structure of authority becomes less clear. Is the tutor earning his keep or not? Who is to decide? By what standard? Enforced by what sanctions? By whom? With what long-term results?

Then parents try to cut costs even more. They pass on costs and authority to local priests. But the priests have their own agendas.

When priests demand payment, the parents then go looking for another source of funding. Ever since the 1830s, this has been the civil government in the United States. This delegation of authority has been accompanied by anti-parental new philosophies of education (R. J. Rushdoony, The Messianic Character of American Education) and new systems of control (John Taylor Gatto, The Underground History of American Education).

All of this demonstrates, once again, that we cannot get something for nothing. When we try to do so, we always transfer authority to the agents who promise to supply us with something for nothing.


The pattern of education was this. First, a small school – the family – taught the children. The operation is small, but it involved a heavy commitment of time by parents. As soon as textbooks appeared, parents began to undermine the family’s educational authority. Textbooks do this by cutting the costs of educating. Parents delegate authority to an expert, whose book is local.

The move to a tutor brought in a third party, plus textbooks. This increased the size of the school.

The tutor for many families did his work in a single location. This required a building. It required transportation. It required a schedule tied to clocks. Families adjust. The school teacher said: “I don’t make house calls.”

The schools got bigger as more students were educated. Administrative control increases. Parents had less and less to say about what went on in the classroom.

With tax-funded education, the last traces of parental control finally disappeared. The PTA was an invention of school administrators to create an illusion of parental input. It was a way to keep activist parents busy. The PTA is busywork for parents.

The schools kept getting bigger. Regional high schools wiped out local high schools in rural areas.

The mark of all this has been the school bus. It says, “Teachers don’t make house calls.” They are symbols of authority: schools over parents. I have written about school buses here.

This pattern of growth parallels the history of mass production. Consider textile production. Initially, a family raised sheep and spun its own yarn. Then this was transferred to sheep herders and local carders. The system of household industry took over: specialists delivered raw materials to households and paid for output on a piece-rate basis. Then looms took over: mass production. The costs fell. Factory production replaced household production.

Choices increased, but authority over production was delegated. Costs fell, but production got centralized. Today, there are cities in China that specialize in specific articles of clothing: socks, neckties, or sweaters. They ship anywhere.

Asia busted America’s trade unions in manufacturing. Let us be thankful for large favors.

Then must everything get larger, more distant, and more centralized as specialization increases? No. There is a new movement toward greater local authority. Just as we saw centralization early in education, so are we seeing decentralization in education.

Where brainpower is for sale rather than physical items, digits are returning authority to local households. The fact that we buy our socks from China is really neither here nor there in the grand scheme of things. What customer cares? But when we are talking about ideas, a lot of them care.


Home schooling is a throwback to the fifteenth century. It lets parents choose the content and structure of their children’s education. But it goes far beyond anything available then. One size does not fit all: all parents or all children. There is enormous diversity today, and it is getting even more diverse.

The teacher-tutor today says, “I do make house calls.” He does this through the Internet. The student stays at his desk, and he can access programs around the world.

The model is Salman Khan’s Khan Academy. There, a student in India can learn math through calculus, physics, and several other sciences. It is 100% free. It is 100% decentralized.

The technology is moving to classrooms on the Web. The Mises Academy offers on-line courses, taught live.

For true/false exams and multiple-choice exams, machines have replaced teachers at the university level. Now digital exams can match this. Only essay exams need teachers. If a parent wants essay exams, he can pay for a tutor. They are available cheap on the Web.

The parent can choose from a wide range of teachers and courses. This is growing constantly. Choices increase as prices fall.

The students are not forced onto buses. They are not governed by the ringing of bells.

The old model of the factory, with its rigid time schedule, is dying. The number of Americans employed in such environments is falling.

The educational system that was designed to supply highly conditioned workers to factories is now outmoded. That was what the system designed by public school educators was supposed to produce. The production system rolls on, but the programs no longer match reality. The content of education has been dumbed down: lowest common denominator. The brighter students get Advanced Placement courses: APs. But there are few high school courses that require a classroom any longer, except possibly for chemistry, with its labs. Not many students take chemistry.

We see a unionized system of education, which spends far too much on administration, facing budget cuts. The most feared sanction in any bureaucracy – budget cuts – now threatens school systems around the West. The parents are finally rebelling at the polls: no more bond issues, no more new schools being built, no more pay raises for teachers, and firing untenured teachers.

Soon, classroom size will grow. Then other cost-cutting measures will appear, including Internet courses. But once that happens, the teachers union will not be able to criticize Internet-based home schooling. The parents can “hire” the top teachers anywhere on earth.


Physical newspapers are all dying. They deliver day-old news. They are expensive to print and distribute. They are aimed at large audiences: the lowest common denominator. They ask people to be satisfied with local articles by local columnists, when the Web provides access to the best writers and cartoonists.

What can the local paper offer that is unique? Local stories. But local news can be found online on local blogs.

Newspaper editors say: “We get professionals to write these local stories.” But then these stories get posted. We can read them for free. The production of news stories is being transferred to the Web. The existing models are no longer working.

The subscription-based news industry is shrinking, yet the number of readers is growing. The returns to largeness are falling. The economies of scale no longer favor the large, centralized producer. They favor the little guy in most cases. And where they don’t, the users still get their news for free on-line. The newspapers find that few people will pay for digital news.

Rupert Murdoch’s world of paper newspapers is dying. We call them newspapers only out of habit. He bought MySpace, just in time to be hammered by Facebook.

The skills developed in terms of the old technology must be applied in a new environment or else abandoned. The established producers hope they can adjust. They won’t. They hope that this process will not continue. It will.

The move has been this: (1) small and local without specialization; (2) large and distant with specialization; (3) small and international with specialization, As soon as digits are involved, “We make house calls” becomes the cry. Suppliers deliver to our door. Think of Amazon and UPS. Think of Salman Khan’s site.

When you can buy from anywhere, local monopolies die. That happened to medieval urban guilds. It is happening to education. The local tax-funded school cannot deliver the goods. Today, it offers babysitting. It offers sports. It offers a central market where drugs are available. It offers opportunities for teenagers to hook up, which does not mean what it did in my day. It offers economies of scale in those features of education that are either peripheral or objectionable.


Family by family, parents are making the decision to pull their children out. They want a better education for their children.

Family by family, the realization is becoming clear: a mother can stay home with her children and monitor their performance. She can give them a better education than the local tax-funded school can.

The existing educational system is desperately trying to keep the public schools from losing its best students, but it cannot win this war. Digital technology is against it. Price competition is against it. The tax revolt is against it. The looming bankruptcy of municipalities is against it.

As the centralized control over the content of education fades, the diversity of choices will undermine the existing political order.

The Left cheers multiculturalism. We are going to see what real multiculturalism is: a world without ideological control by New York City’s textbook publishers.

There is a scene in the movie, The Answer Man, where Jeff Daniels takes on a public school teacher. It is a great scene. That it could appear in a Hollywood movie is an indication of what lies ahead for the existing system.

As the old saying goes, “When you see something wobble, push it.”

January 6, 2011

Gary North [send him mail] is the author of Mises on Money. Visit He is also the author of a free 20-volume series, An Economic Commentary on the Bible.

Copyright © 2011 Gary North