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It is a truth universally acknowledged that the US education system is messed up. Opinions differ as to what — precisely — is wrong, what can be done to fix it, and whether fixing it is possible or even desirable. One thing we should all be able to agree with is that making education compulsory in today’s world makes no sense.
I am not arguing that education is bad. I am not arguing that attendance at school should be officially discouraged. I am arguing (among other things) that forcing the most vulnerable in our society — the children of the poor in the inner cities and deprived rural areas — to attend institutions that we know do not work (or that are actively harmful) is a colossal waste of resources that actively prevents better things from happening.
What would happen in a state that repealed its laws on compulsory education? For one thing, there would no longer be a need for a legal definition of “education” that homeschoolers, religious academies or on-line course providers would have to comply with.* For another, the vast majority of children would continue to attend schools. At the margin — older children for whom the last couple of years of high school are a waste anyway, and children in areas with terrible schools (or terrible parents) — there would be a drop in school attendance.
But it is at the margin that the market provides discipline and innovation creates value (yes, those are basically the same things.) Humans like to learn — otherwise there wouldn’t be non-fiction sections in book shops (or Amazon, if you’re reading this next year) — and people need to know stuff. A free society is particularly good at providing things people like and/or need. I won’t pretend to know what might replace the inner-city public schools where boys are more likely to get shot and girls more likely to get pregnant than to acquire a taste for learning, but I’m willing to bet it’s not worse than the alternative.
One can imagine other effects of removing the gun pointed at the heads of our children. If there is no legal definition of “education”, then there is no legal definition of “teacher” (or, indeed, “school”). As in other areas where human ingenuity is allowed to respond to the needs of actual people, the types of services available to parents and children might multiply as the entrenched interests lose power. Who will be the first to build the Uber or Airbnb of K-12?
In this day and age, compulsory education laws restrict the middle class’s choice of educational possibilities while entrenching the lower class in a corrupt (and corrupting) government education system.
It’s time to say no.
* Although this might be embedded in child labor laws e.g. “no one may employ someone below the age of X who has not imbibed Y years of statist propaganda.”
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