The Public School Monopoly: A Pro-choice Education Agenda

The National stake in education is twofold: first, society should consist of skilled and competent people able to fulfill the citizen’s responsibility to elect and assess governments. Second, education is a primary way to enable each citizen to fulfill his or her personal potential, irrespective of any societal needs. Thus for any modern democracy, and for the individuals at the center of it, the highest quality education is a crucial social objective.

One of society’s most fundamental decisions on education policy has nothing to do with the act of educating. Rather, it has to do with how government funds for education are distributed. There are two basic alternatives, and they result in radically different outcomes. Society can direct substantially all those dollars to government-owned schools, thereby creating monopolistic tendencies within and around those schools as the competition provided by independent schools is suppressed by financial starvation. Or society can dispense those dollars so as to enhance parental freedom in education, thereby encouraging educational variety and competition.

Education has content as well as form, substance as well as procedure. Different people, with equal legitimacy, can create quite different educational models. Society’s needs will be met if the different approaches share but one characteristic: that in the end, each different way will result in educated persons able both to achieve their personal fulfillment and to help society in general.

As long as this minimal objective is achieved by all education providers, then it is most natural and humanly productive to allow and, indeed, to encourage many forms of scholastic arrangements. We Americans pride ourselves on freedom of choice, and the social pluralism which results from it. One of the ways that pluralism seeks to manifest itself is in alternative school systems which, while achieving the necessary standard social objectives, can go beyond that to reflect the particular principles and priorities of their sponsors.

What are the evident benefits of such a natural approach to educational reform? Most obviously, it satisfies a felt need for the many groups who have a distinct educational vision. Such groups may form around religious, or philosophical, or precisely pedagogical themes. They may produce a Catholic, or a Lutheran, or an Ethical Humanist, or a Montessori system, or in-home educating — all manifestations of profound beliefs translated into educational offerings to children and parents free to accept or reject them. The right and capacity to sustain such educational variety is a very great social good.

Second, an inevitable and substantial benefit of such an environment is that it practically precludes monopoly in education and all the stultifying accompaniments of such monopoly. Instead, it inevitably results in a healthy competitiveness within the educational arena. The benefits of such an environment, even in the normally non-commercial world of education, are vast: it works against bureaucratization, it encourages efficiency and spontaneity, and it results in responsiveness and responsibility toward the parents (customers) involved. In doing this, it creates a healthy competitive environment for the public schools, which are actually the primary beneficiaries of educational choice.

And that points to the third positive result: parents and students in such a context choose their school, whether it be private or public. This act and atmosphere of choice creates a very positive and productive climate for school-parent cooperation, and an expectation, a moral presumption, that parents are to work closely with the school to achieve educational objectives.

A fourth benefit, greatly important in an age crying for more ethical behavior, is that, in contrast to state-owned schools, freely-elected schools can directly address ethical standards and can insist on such standards in the life of the school. Serious, rigorous instruction always reflects specific ethical starting points, whether they be religious or philosophical. This moral instruction need not produce social conflict, for such particular ethical positions will often result in viewpoints easily harmonized with others that arose from quite different traditions, and in any case, the polity will finally harmonize them for social purposes. But serious ethical instruction nearly always begins from a particular perspective. Today’s state schools, by contrast, must try to reflect a greatly varied whole, cannot legitimately reflect particular moral traditions — and, as a result, tend to end up reflecting little except the latest fads in the most superficial secular thought.

These are powerful benefits of parental freedom in education. There was a time in America when its people created a variegated educational structure that produced many of these benefits. Even now, thanks to the tireless and uphill efforts of many people, some variety remains. Perhaps more to the point, if one looks beyond our borders, one sees many nations which have been able to give full voice to the natural dynamics I have suggested. Holland is an interesting and instructive example in which government policy permits and encourages social groups with an idea about how best to educate to organize and offer appropriate schools. As long as they are prepared to meet standard educational benchmarks, and as long as they achieve minimum enrollment levels, groups are invited to form such schools and receive public support, and they have done so with excellent results. A vital public system remains for those who wish it, but it exists within an active competitive environment as one of many equally legitimate options.

In the United States we have strayed far away from such an ideal. We have permitted the growth of a school-financing policy the effect of which is to encourage educational monopoly and to discourage educational freedom and innovation. Make no mistake, while in the abstract we remain free to create private educational offerings, the practical monopoly of public financing is choking off the natural product of free expression. Huge increases in the cost of public education, and the taxes to pay for it, have greatly sapped funds for private alternatives. First and worst hit, naturally, are the private systems in the inner cities. Those schools have succeeded, often miraculously, even as the public schools, protected by monopoly financing, have become less and less effective — and, at the same time we pursue a financing policy which endangers the very existence of the successful schools!

That policy promotes state monopoly at all levels of education, elementary, secondary, and higher. It is this financing policy which is destructive of social and personal educational aims. There is absolutely nothing wrong with public schools as such — unless they begin to take on the monopolistic characteristics outlined earlier. The public schools are not the enemy. A financing policy which encourages monopoly is the enemy. Where did it come from? If so wrong, why so predominant? How could the American people choose it?

The answer, of course, is that the American people did not choose it. The primary reason America is saddled with monopoly-producing policies is that the courts of the nation have been willing to invoke church/state fears to block the natural educational instincts of American society. The great bulk of independent American education derives from religious groups. Even when the normal political and legislative processes in the nation and states have been open to freedom in education, opponents have found courts willing to weave a web of inhibiting decisions that prevent the church/state violations alleged to inhere in independent education.

Such allegations were never true or realistic. The natural tendency to create school systems representing various groups’ deepest beliefs have nothing to do with “establishing a religion” by state action. But the court decisions noted above created an artificial restraint on the natural social inclination to encourage freedom in education. Behind that artificial restraint grew up monopoly financing of public schools. And around those financing monopolies grew up vested interests and the legislative liaisons that work to protect them from healthy change.

It is time to consider a path out of our unfortunate condition. There are several natural constituencies, with distinct but compatible motives, which need to be and can be united for change. Several fronts must be opened and prosecuted simultaneously.

First, the American public must be reminded of what freedom in education is like, and how unnecessary and unnatural the current arrangement is. Though monopoly financing polices are perverse, they have prevailed long enough to seem quite natural to many citizens. Education of children must replace maintenance of monopoly school systems as the end of and driving force for educational policy. Second, the legal and political means needed to break the forces of monopoly now at work and to restore parents’ control over their children’s educational fate must be identified. Third, the vested interests which have grown up around the monopoly system — vast educational bureaucracies, education unions, secularist agencies antipathetic toward any free religious manifestation — need to be exposed to clear public view. Since parental freedom has improvement of public schools as one of its chief aims, there is for education truly no down side risk in a parental freedom policy. There is risk only for the vested interests attached to the current monopoly policy.

Fourth, business and fraternal organizations, naturally opposed to monopoly and supportive of freedom, need to be urged to engage the issue, especially since the former’s interest in a productive workforce is at stake. Fifth, interested parties should be encouraged to agree on a specific new social policy to replace the current bankrupt approach. Given the legal entanglements which must be overcome en route to a more rational and just tomorrow, educational vouchers, where public funds follow the parent and student as they make their school choice, look like the best bet. And sixth, this exercise needs to be done in the nation and in the 50 states, for it is in the states that the essence of educational policy is set.

Special circumstances now prevailing suggest an unusual opportunity to follow such efforts to a good result. There is an unusually clear recognition that the current monopoly-producing system is not working satisfactorily. Even in the financially more advantaged parts of the nation, the monopoly system is resulting in unfavorable educational outcomes when compared to other advanced nations. The inability of these school systems to provide rigorous ethical guidance, and their tendency to become captive of prevailing secularist trends, is well known. Their costs have escalated greatly, and the tax systems underwriting them are straining. And in the inner parts of the major cities the term “educational crisis” is heard with growing and justifiable frequency. These sad realities, traceable in substantial part to the monopoly tendencies of current policy, have helped create a climate in which change can occur. The general public is acutely aware there are large problems, and the community of “movers and shakers” within that public is stirring.

Moreover, recent national administrations have helped to create a political atmosphere more conducive to change than any in recent memory. Also, court appointments during the last decade have heightened the chances of a more equitable and restrained court presence on questions of educational financing policy. This same political improvement has occurred in various state governments. Given the developments of the last ten years as a launching pad, the next five to six years are crucially important for reforming educational policy away from monopoly and toward parental freedom.


  • Quentin L. Quade

    Quentin L. Quade, when he wrote this article, was the Executive Vice-President of Marquette University. He later went on to open the Blum Center in 1992 for the purpose of collecting, organizing, synthesizing, and distributing information regarding school choice efforts across the country.

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