Jewish World Review Feb. 26, 2004 / 5 Adar 5764

Wendy McElroy

Wendy McElroy
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The Separation of School and State | In the wake of a fatal shooting, the security for a D.C. high school was officially turned over to the city’s police department last week. Armed officers will patrol the halls.

This is one more indication of the severe problems haunting the public school system: violence, illegal drugs, the mandating of medication such as Ritalin, low academic achievement, controversial curricula, perceived prejudice against boys.

Parents who wish to explore educational alternatives at their own expense should be encouraged to do so, yet the opposite is occurring. Advocates of public schooling view other systems of education as threats to be regulated, discouraged and sometimes demonized. (Often the income and careers of these advocates depend upon the continued tax funding of public schools.)

Is there any validity to their criticism of educational alternatives?

Two of the most viable ones are homeschooling and apprenticeships. Neither prevents anyone from choosing public schools; each merely offers a choice at no public expense. How could anyone reasonably object to that?

One objection comes from the assumption that public schools are necessary for children to become literate. The assumption is unfounded. Prior to the spread of public education in the early 1900s, literacy rates in America were amazingly high. A much-quoted estimate comes from a book written in 1812 at the behest of Thomas Jefferson. The French statesman Pierre Samuel DuPont de Nemours, who emigrated to America, declared of young Americans, "Not more than four in a thousand are unable to write legibly, even neatly."

Other sources also attest to high literacy rates prior to the 1900s, a literacy that arose largely from homeschooling.

Pointing to the past is unnecessary. Today homeschooled students often perform better on standardized tests than those from public schools. In 2001, for example, homeschooled SAT-takers averaged 568 on the verbal test and 525 on the math; the national average was 506 on verbal and 514 on math.

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Moreover, nations that actively encourage apprenticeship programs such as Germany and Switzerland enjoy very high literacy. Clearly, public schools are not a necessary path to that social goal.

Two additional criticisms of educational alternatives are common.

First, alternatives weaken the public school system; and second, they harm children.

The first argument assumes that dissenting parents should support and strengthen a social institution they believe damages their children. Their "social obligations" are placed in conflict with their parental responsibilities. No such conflict exists. Parents who use their own judgment and money in educating their children deprive no other parent of that same right. If public schools, with all their advantages, cannot compete with free market options, then they deserve to weaken because children deserve better.

The second criticism is that educational alternatives harm children.

In the ‘80s, when homeschooling appeared on the social radar, it was closely associated with the Religious Right. Homeschoolers were viewed as extremists and unqualified amateurs. As homeschooling entered the mainstream and a generation of homeschooled children scored well on tests,  public suspicion faded.

The accusation of harm shifted. Homeschooling is now said to mask child abuse. This was the message clearly implied by an Oct. 14 CBS News two-part report entitled "A Dark Side to Homeschooling." The report created a furor of protest in the homeschooling community; it also encouraged politicians to call for anti-homeschooling legislation.

JWR columnist  Michelle Malkin examined a push for legislation in New Jersey. Four adopted boys were found to be starving although child welfare officials claimed to have visited the home no fewer than 38 times. Rather than condemn the bureaucracy, politicians blamed the fact that the foster parents had homeschooled. Thus, all New Jersey homeschoolers may be subjected to indignities like criminal background checks and obstacles like health regulations more stringent than those imposed on public schools.

Malkin concluded, "God forbid children be taught by their own parents without oversight from the all-knowing, all-caring, infallible … child welfare-public school monopoly!"

With apprenticeships, the concept of harm often draws upon the specter of "child labor" even though modern apprenticeships bear no resemblance to the 19th century images that arise at the sound of that term. Apprentices entering programs in the U.S., for instance, must be at least 16 years old. Moreover, apprenticeship as alternative education was established as a matter of parental and religious liberty by the court case Wisconsin v. Yoder (1972).

The case addressed the Amish and Mennonite tradition by which children were employed from age 14 to 16 on the family farm or in a family occupation, like carpentry, instead of going to school as the law usually requires. The court found that such employment did not constitute harm. Today, these apprenticeships remain a de facto exception to child labor laws and open the door to other exceptions.

My purpose is not to dispute with parents who send their children to public schools. I believe the system is a brutal failure, but parents must decide for themselves. I advocate extending alternatives far beyond the typical private versus public school debate, and even beyond homeschooling.

Apprenticeships, experiments like Montessori and the School of Living, self-guided education, mentoring … The cost of public education is not measured in tax dollars alone. A universe of educational possibilities has been obstructed by the attempt to enforce a government monopoly over how, where, when, and what children learn.

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JWR contributor Wendy McElroy is the editor of She also edited Freedom, Feminism, and the State (Independent Institute, 1999) and Sexual Correctness: The Gender Feminist Attack on Women (McFarland, 1996). She lives with her husband in Canada. Comment by clicking here.


01/21/04: A Man's (and Woman's) Home Is a Castle
12/17/04: The Conservative Cookie Rebellion
11/26/03: Zero Patience for Zero Tolerance
10/22/03: Killing the Good Samaritan
10/08/03: Collective western guilt burdens today's children
10/01/03: Families pay price for government spending
09/24/03: Do Poor Fathers Deserve Debtors' Prison?
08/29/03: Going to extremes
08/23/03: The Marriage Strike
07/30/03: University Students Deserve Human Rights
07/09/03: The PCspeak of Diversity
07/02/03: Rebuttable presumption of joint custody
06/18/03: A Conscientious Objector to the Gender War
06/04/03: Gender issues impacted by masculinists
05/28/03: The value of error
05/21/03: U.S. to Fund Gender Feminism in Africa?
05/14/03: Cut men: Do they not bleed?
05/07/03: Women with guns fight back
04/30/03: No oil for food
04/28/03: The Great Lie
04/16/03: War may redefine gun control
04/09/03: Why we must discuss a post-war U.S.
04/02/03: Leftist feminists using war as podium
03/26/03: Laying down 'the white woman's burden'
03/19/03: Iraq War may kill feminism as we know it
03/13/03: A woman to replace Saddam
02/19/03: Elder abuse demands family solutions
02/13/03: Iraqi women brutalized by Saddam
01/29/03: There ought not to be a law
01/22/03: Gambling with race and gender cards
01/02/03: The future of fatherhood
12/26/02: U.N. complicit in forced sterilizations
12/20/02: Compassion, kindness killed by fear, paranoia
12/11/02: Affirmative action insults immigrant contributions
12/04/02: Stand up for yourself
11/27/02: Feminist fighting: Aren't we all women?
11/20/02: Rights & responsibilities
11/14/02: Feminist "urban legends"
11/06/02: Equal access does not guarantee equal outcome
10/24/02: Battered Women's Syndrome: Science or sham?
10/17/02: I demand a civil society that respects the individual and acknowledges the existence of honest disagreement between human beings of good will
10/09/02: Abortion debate is about to be ratcheted up yet again
10/02/02: 'Restorative justice' offers battered women more options
09/25/02: Why is prez promising to embrace UN radical social engineering programs?
09/18/02: Dirty dealings kill men's panel
09/11/02: Taking back your power
09/05/02: Calm down, Hootie!
08/21/02: Will Congress empower a group of radical feminists to oversee money slated for Afghan women?
08/14/02: Empower the U.N. with power to sculpt American laws and institutions into the image of gender feminism!?
08/01/02: Practicing 'intellectual virtue'
07/24/02: All male, bad. All female, good: Your tax dollars at work
07/11/02: Put Up or Shut Up
07/03/02: NOW they've done it, again!
06/19/02: A dark cloud shades U.N. Women's Treaty
06/10/02: This Father's Day, send justice
05/31/02: When good women do nothing
05/28/02: Feminists claiming motherhood as liberal cause
05/20/02: Wounds in health care system are self-inflicted: Or, why "my son the lawyer" makes more sense
05/10/02: Are parents boycotting public schools?
05/03/02: Women can't be gun-shy about defense
04/25/02: The Bill of Intellectual Rights
04/19/02: World Bank or World Government?: The World Bank is blackmailing impoverished nations
04/12/02: Victims From Birth: Engineering Defects in Helpless Children Crosses the Line
04/05/02: The professor made me cry, now I will make him pay!
03/31/02: Doctors and teens --- parents be on guard
03/22/02: I was born, now I'm suing you!
03/15/02: The 21st Century is knocking at the barricaded door of feminism
03/08/02: Fun and games at the Ms mag Bulletin Board
03/01/02: Andrea Yates, NOW, and Feminist Jurisprudence
02/22/02: Lady, Your Slip is Showing
02/14/02: 'Abusing' Valentine's Day
02/11/02: Is NOW Pro-Choice or Pro-Abortion?
02/01/02: Are 'fathers' rights' a factor in male suicide?
01/25/02: Is the U.N. Running Brothels in Bosnia?
01/18/02: 'Freedom' at another's (moral) expense
01/11/02: Feminists hit Ground Zero with WTC funds grab
01/04/02: Males winning "diversity discrimination" cases is good?
12/21/01: Good will toward men
12/14/01: "Boss Tweed" feminism
12/07/01: Call me 'anti-woman'

© 2001, Wendy McElroy