Education for All

by Harry Browne

September 16, 2004      

I received the following comment in an email in response my article "Free the Schools":

I agree wholeheartedly with your conclusions regarding the state of public education. However, there is one aspect of complete privatization I've been unable to work out, and wondered your opinion.

What happens to the students whose parents are too poor to afford to send them to any private school, even a very inexpensive one? Are these children simply denied education based on the socioeconomic circumstances of their birth?

In the first place, no one should have a right to demand that someone else pay for his education — whether kindergarten, elementary school, high school, university, or chiropractic college. Or is everyone entitled as well to a new Corvette and a set of the Complete Works of Oprah Winfrey?

Literacy Then & Now

In the second place, children don't have to go to school to learn how to read, write, and add. Realize that there were no government schools until the mid-1800s, and yet people learned to read and write — from their parents, in one-room school houses, or even on their own.

John Taylor Gatto has pointed out that, prior to government schools in America, the literacy rate among non-slaves was close to 100%. His lengthy article, "Eyeless in Gaza" on the history of the decline of education in America is well worth reading in its entirety.

In it, he points out:

Looking back, abundant data exist from states like Connecticut and Massachusetts to show that by 1840 the incidence of complex literacy in the United States was between 93 and 100% wherever such a thing mattered.

According to the Connecticut census of 1840, only one citizen out of every 579 was illiterate and you probably don't want to know, not really, what people in those days considered literate; it's too embarrassing. Popular novels of the period give a clue: Last of the Mohicans, published in 1826, sold so well that a contemporary equivalent would have to move 10 million copies to match it.

If you pick up an uncut version you find yourself in a dense thicket of philosophy, history, culture, manners, politics, geography, analysis of human motives and actions, all conveyed in data-rich periodic sentences so formidable only a determined and well-educated reader can handle it nowadays. Yet in 1818 we were a small-farm nation without colleges or universities to speak of. Could those simple folk have had more complex minds than our own?

Elsewhere in the article, he says:

By 1820, there was even more evidence of Americans' avid reading habits, when 5 million copies of James Fenimore Cooper's complex and allusive novels were sold, along with an equal number of Noah Webster's didactic Speller — to a population of dirt farmers under 20 million in size.

In 1835, Richard Cobden announced there was six times as much newspaper reading in the United States as in England, and the census figures of 1840 gave fairly exact evidence that a sensational reading revolution had taken place without any exhortation on the part of public moralists and social workers, but because common people had the initiative and freedom to learn. In North Carolina, the worst situation of any state surveyed, eight out of nine could still read and write.

In 1853, Per Siljestromm, a Swedish visitor, wrote, "In no country in the world is the taste for reading so diffuse as among the common people in America." The American Almanac observed grandly, "Periodical publications, especially newspapers, disseminate knowledge throughout all classes of society and exert an amazing influence in forming and giving effect to public opinion." It noted the existence of over a thousand newspapers.

Contrast this with a recent study by the United Way of Greater Los Angeles, in which it was discovered that "53% of workers ages 16 and older were deemed functionally illiterate." The study classified "3.8 million Los Angeles County residents as ‘low-literate,' meaning they could not write a note explaining a billing error, use a bus schedule or locate an intersection on a street map."

Part of the problem in Los Angeles is the low literacy rate of immigrants, but immigrants don't begin to approach 53% of the population of Los Angeles County.

In other words, prior to government schools literacy spread to virtually everyone — rich or poor. Now illiteracy spreads to people everywhere — rich or poor.

The Free Market to the Rescue (As Always)

In the third place, it is highly unlikely that poor children would go without schooling if there were a totally free market in education.

Today there are over 200,000 churches, mosques, and temples in America — funded completely by voluntary donations. Americans as a whole give over $240 billion a year to organized charities. Providing a private-school education to every poor child would probably cost less than 10% of that.

There already are close to a hundred privately funded scholarship programs for elementary and high school students — sending poor children to private schools. The Children's Scholarship Fund, the Houston Children's Educational Opportunity Foundation, Children First Utah, the Educational Choice Charitable Trust, and dozens more are making it possible for poor children today to get the kind of really good private-school educations that politicians provide for their own children.

The choice is simple: Either we provide worthless government schooling for everyone at an enormous cost — or we provide real education and self-responsibility to everyone at a fraction of the cost.