The conventional wisdom tells us that public education is the only way the poor could receive an education. Not so. As we shall see, the children of the poor were learning to read and write long before government became much involved.


         Some years ago, in a school district just outside Los Angeles, parents found themselves with a problem which was becoming all too common across the country: an educational system strong on “life adjustment,” but weak on education. Homework was replaced by such goodies as “practicing telephone techniques and the social amenities,” graded report cards were eliminated, even the spelling bee was taboo because of the “emotional tension,” and on and on. 1
      When three school board members sought to amend what they suspected was arrant quackery, they found themselves eyeball-to-eyeball with an indignant public school establishment. An “adviser” from the California Teachers Association was soon huddled with the district Faculty Association. Finally, amid much fanfare in the local press, the faculty group formally charged the three board members with violating the “rights of teachers” in thirty-six specific areas.
      Months after this dramatic confrontation it was discovered that the thirty- six accusations had not been “obtained from teachers throughout the district” at all, as had been claimed, but had merely been copied verbatim from an unrelated magazine article. But by this time the three board members had already been ousted in a bitter recall election precipitated by these fabricated charges. 

      While perhaps an extreme example, this episode illustrates a national trend of several decades' duration. In 1965 Congressman John Ashbrook (R., Ohio) quoted U.S. Office of Education official Carrol Hanson as declaring,

... the tradition of local control has been used by certain groups to forestall increased expenditures for education; it has been used to frighten the Office of Education out of areas where the nation's interest is involved and where the Office does have a legitimate concern. The tradition of local control should no longer be permitted to inhibit Office of Education leadership. 2

       Today, the issue is settled: control rests with the teacher unions, with the state departments of education, with the U.S. Department of Education and with the courts. But not with the parents. And so public education, at one time the institution closest to the local community and most willingly supported by it, has joined the Post Office and the Pentagon in being quite beyond the effective reach of the average citizen.
      Today, the public school monolith is widely perceived as being more remote, more expensive and less effective than ever, with the result that people are often less interested in “reforming” the system than in escaping it. An example of this important shift in public attitude is the tuition tax credit, a measure clearly intended as an escape hatch. A recent tax credit bill was finally gutted in Congress, but it earned a degree of bipartisan support which would have been unthinkable just a few years before. The U.S. Supreme Court has upheld a Minnesota tax credit proposal. In 1998 the Wisconsin Supreme Court, in a decision of major national significance, voted 4-2 in favor of that state's voucher plan permitting state funding for private schools, including religious schools.

      But even as people seek to escape the deteriorating public school system the ultimate question remains: Is there any responsible alternative to continued support of public education? Without the public schools what about the poor? Would education become exclusively the advantage of the rich? Would the nation's youth sink into ignorance, crime, and sloth?
       In contemplating a society without a public school system let us first take a look at the true origins of mass education. We will find to our surprise that both in England and in the U.S. mass education was far advanced long before the State became much involved.


      Contrary to popular wisdom, the first successful experiments in mass education of the poor came about not through government action but through the efforts of private individuals. In England one of the true pioneers of mass education was a Quaker school- master named Joseph Lancaster who opened his first school in London in 1798. 
 He invited children of miners, factory workers, even of paupers. To the amazement of observers these ragged children, some barefoot and hungry, began to read, write and spell. By the time Lancaster was 21 he had outgrown one temporary accommodation after another and had finally designed and built his own school building. The sign above the entrance declared, “All that will may send their children and have them educated freely; and those who do not wish to have education for nothing may pay for it if they please.”        Incredibly, Lancaster by himself was able to teach a thousand pupils at one time. Lancaster would teach the fundamentals to a few of the older boys· then, as soon as one achieved proficiency in the subject he became a monitor with responsibility for teaching the rudiments to ten younger children. There were monitors for reading, writing, spelling and arithmetic. Monitors ruled paper, gave exams and promoted pupils. Pupils were promoted immediately and individually upon completion of the required work.
      That the poor could be educated at all was surprising to many, but that this could be achieved quickly and inexpensively was doubly amazing. Donations from the rich and the famous began to increase, and in 1805 Lancaster was granted an audience with George III which resulted in yearly contributions from the royal family.
      Lancaster's fame spread even to the United States, where his methods were adopted with equal success. DeWitt Clinton, founder of the New York Free School Society (and later governor of the state) declared, 


When I perceive that many boys in our school have been taught to read and write in two months who did not before know the alphabet, and that even one has accomplished it in three weeks – when I view all the bearings and tendencies of the system – when I contemplate the habits of order which it forms, the spirit of emulation which it excites – the rapid movements which it produces – the purity of morals which it inculcates – when I behold the extraordinary union of celerity in instruction and economy of expense – and when I perceive one great assembly of a thousand children under the eye of a single teacher, marching with unexcelled rapidity, and with perfect discipline to the goal of knowledge, I confess that I recognize in Lancaster the benefactor of the human race. 4

       Lancaster was not without detractors, however. Some church leaders, angered at his refusal to promote church doctrine, roundly attacked him as an enemy of the established religion. Yet this conflict was perhaps a blessing in disguise, for now church groups began to increase their own efforts.
       Without benefit of the state, mass education was becoming a reality. One observer noted in 1813:

From observation and inquiry assiduously directed to that object, we can ourselves speak decidedly as to the rapid progress which the love of education is making among the lower orders in England. Even around London, in a circle of fifty miles radius, which is far from the most instructed and virtuous part of the kingdom, there is hardly a village that has not something of a school; and not many children of either sex who are not taught more or less, reading and writing. We have met with families in which, for weeks together, not an article of sustenance but potatoes had been used; yet for every child the hard-earned sum was provided to send them to school. 5

       But, unfortunately, this period of progressive, voluntary activity was soon to come to an end, for education was now attracting the attention of politicians. Efforts to bring the private schools under government inspection were at first vigorously rejected, but in 1833 Parliament began to offer financial assistance, and many schools eagerly accepted – and were thereafter obliged to submit to government inspection and control. Agitation continued to grow, however, for still further government activity to “fill in the gaps” in the existing system which, although subsidized, was still essentially private. The turning point came with the Education Act of 1870 which established the first government operated “board schools” supported primarily by direct taxation.
      The board schools had virtually unlimited funds at their disposal, and the result was such an orgy of bureaucratic extravagance that one observer, G. R. Porter was moved to comment: 

Unfortunately, expert knowledge of education and expert knowledge of finance are not found in combination, and the greatest enthusiasm for educating the young is often accompanied by utter carelessness of the money of the taxpayer .. At present, there is a vast amount of waste in unnecessary luxuries, in the building of ornamental palaces, in the multiplication of clerks, inspectors, and so forth. 6

       As taxes to pay for all this went higher and higher, the inevitable result of state involvement soon became apparent: When people are forced to suppport a government institution, many can no longer afford to go elsewhere. Accordingly, scores of voluntary schools were now forced to close, while many others were taken over by the state and converted to board schools.

      By 1900 the transformation to state monopoly was nearly complete. Yet, considering the amazing progress that had been achieved earlier by men like Joseph Lancaster, one cannot help but wonder what abundance in educational resources might have been developed in England had private effort not been forced out of the market by the politician and the bureaucrat.


      State involvement in education had earlier origins in the United States than in England, for the Puritan leaders of Massachusetts had passed compulsory education laws as far back as 1642 and 1647. But in general state involvement up to the nineteenth century was limited to occasional modest subsidies to existing private schools. Of course, no two states were alike in their subsequent approach to education, but New York State may be taken as representative of the trend.
      About the turn of the century private schools were beginning to develop rapidly, just as in England. Church schools were commonplace. In 1805, DeWitt Clinton founded the Free School Society whose schools, as noted above, utilized the methods of Joseph Lancaster.
      A public school system was first established in New York State in 1812. These schools, called “common schools,” were supported only in part by state funds and local taxes, however. The largest single source of revenue was the “rate bills,” i.e., fees paid by the parents.
      Even though the common schools were not free, education during this period was virtually universal: a report in 1821 by the State Superintendent of Education declared that of the 380,000 children in the state between the ages of 5 and 16, 342,479 were attending school. Mass education, it appears, was already an accomplished fact.
      Yet, in spite of rapid progress in this predominantly voluntary system, agitation was increasing to abolish the rate bills, thus making support of the public schools entirely compulsory. Spearheaded by public officials and teachers, this campaign soon bore fruit. The rate bills were abolished in 1849, reestablished in 1851, and then abolished for good with the Free School Act of 1867. The public schools were now 100% tax supported. Or, to put it another way, the individual no longer retained any measure of choice as to whether or not he wished to support a state system of education.

       As noted above, voluntary schools cannot readily compete with tax subsidized public schools, and by mid-century the voluntary school population was beginning to decline. (DeWitt Clinton's Free School Society held out for a time, but finally merged with the New York City system in 1853.) This trend was not viewed with any sorrow by the public school enthusiasts, however, who had been generally hostile to the voluntary schools all along. The State Superintendent had declared in 1849,

Private schools ought not to receive the encouragement of the state, or the support of the community. “They are usually sustained by those who have the ability to employ competent teachers, and the common schools are weakened by the means applied to their support. Our district schools may be so elevated (by more public expenditure) that those who seek superior advantages for their children, can find them only in the common schools. 7

       Influential Horace Mann (an ardent admirer of the Prussian state school system) was especially irked that private schools competed for the better teachers:

If teachers look for more liberal remuneration, they abandon the service of the public, and open private schools ... While we pay so inadequately a salary at home, many of our best educated young women go south or southwest, where they readily obtain $400, $500, or $600 a year ... Others of our best educated young women become assistants in academies, or open private schools on their own account. 8

       Back in 1812 the first common schools had been established merely to “fill in the gaps” in an essentially voluntary system, but by now the goal of public school leaders was not to supplement the voluntary sector, but to supplant it.
      The methods of Joseph Lancaster, incidentally, were in use in some of the common schools as well as in many private schools. But opposition began to grow, especially among teachers, an increasing number of whom were products of the state teacher institutes. Some evidently regarded the monitorial systems as an affront to their own authority and resented being reduced to the supervision of “transient, ignorant and unskilled monitors.”
      Lancaster's methods gradually fell from favor, and in New York City the monitorial system was banned by the Department of Education in 1846.

      And so evolved education in the state of New York; primarily a voluntary undertaking at the beginning of the century and virtually a state monopoly at the close. Yet, contrary to popular opinion, mass education was already an expanding reality many decades before that monopoly finally became established.
      What might the educational facilities of this country be today had private, voluntary effort not been preempted by state force? In considering this intriguing question one might ponder this highly significant fact: the goods and services provided today on a voluntary, free market basis – automobiles, entertainment, food, clothing, etc., - are available in abundance at steadily declining (real) cost, while the goods and services provided by the state are in chronic short supply and the taxes to pay for them go up and up. Indeed, present experience as well as past history suggest that we would have better and more abundant educational facilities today for rich and poor alike had education never become a concern of the state.


       A variety of studies available on the internet indicate that K-12 private schools are providing a superior education at less than half the per pupil cost of the public school: roughly 4 thousand dollars per student compared to 10 thousand dollars or so in the public schools. Of particular interest is the inner city private school.
      The principal argument in behalf of public education is that it “educates the poor,” but it is in precisely this area that the public schools have failed most thoroughly. In fact, children of the poor were receiving a better education in 1798 with Joseph Lancaster than they are receiving today in many of our inner-city public schools.
      But where the bureaucrat performs so poorly private effort once again shows the way. A LOS ANGELES TIMES article from 1980 described the importance of private schools to the black community of that city:

... A number of churches run pre-school programs. The Lutheran church-Missouri Synod alone operates four elementary schools in the black community, with a significant percentage of non-Lutheran students. Black students from South Central and other areas also are bused to the Walter A. Maier Lutheran High School in Burbank, which has a 45% black enrollment. Baptists also have long been involved in the area of private schools, and the Association of Christian Schools International, run by a group of evangelical protestant denominations, operates 16 elementary schools in black areas of the city as well as Brethren High School in Paramount, with a 50% black enrollment of its 540 students. 10

       A major contributor to black education in Los Angeles is the Catholic Church with 20 elementary and a half-dozen high schools in the heart of the black community. City-wide more than 10,000 black children attend Catholic schools. Msgr. John Mihan, superintendent of elementary education for the Los Angeles Diocese declared in 1980, “I think our commitment is very strong. We are so strongly committed to keeping our schools open in the inner city that we are not building any new schools in the suburbs. The whole thing was thrashed out about five years ago, even though we realize there is a large percentage of non-Catholics among our black student population.11 

      Today, in the Los Angeles archdiocese, a large majority the 70,000 elementary students, and of the the 30,000 high school students are Latino, black or Asian. 

      Non-church schools are also proliferating in the inner city. One of the better known efforts in Los Angeles is the Sheenway School, founded in 1972 by a Los Angeles physician and surgeon, Dr. Herbert Sheen, and his daughter, Dolores Sheen-Blunt. The school is run by his daughter, an accomplished musician who also holds a black belt in Karate. With an enrollment of 70, the school has a “country store,” where the children learn how to keep inventory and write bills of sale, and a darkroom where children from kindergarten through 12th grade learn photography and film processing.

Aside from the basics the students are taught everything from ballet to diction. The girls wear plaid jumpers or skirts and the boys wear brown cords and white shirts. In the classroom the children rise when a visitor enters. The annual budget is around $178,000, about 65% of which is covered by tuition.

      Regarding the public school system Dolores Sheen-Blunt comments, the public schools are designed for failure. For one thing, they are drowning in paperwork, and teachers just don't have the time to provide children with individual attention. But the more unfortunate thing about the public system is that it diminishes in people a sense of responsibility for their own lives and their own children. This huge bureaucracy is in our midst saying “We're in charge here,” and as a result people are encouraged to become dependent on this outside political institution rather than on the resources within their own community. This is very unfortunate.12

       Perhaps the best publicized inner-city effort in the nation was that of Marva Collins, whose Westside Preparatory School was located in the rundown Garfield Park area of Chicago. Her school received the sympathetic attention of 60 Minutes and was also the subject of a made-for-TV movie, The Marva Collins Story.
       The daughter of a black Alabama businessman, Marva Collins taught in the Chicago inner city public schools for fourteen years before leaving in disgust in 1975. She explained, “All we were doing was creating more welfare recipients.” With $5000 of her own money she opened her school in one room of an old brownstone. The 200 or so black children, ages 5-12, are drilled vigorously in the basics with an emphasis on reading and writing. She starts the five-year-olds on Aesops Fables, while assigning myths, novels and legends to the more advanced students. She asks, “Who can say that the classics are too hard for eight-year-olds? Why spoon-feed them until the choke on an overdose of boredom?”
      Her approach seemed to work. Many of her students jumped from well below to well above grade level. One eight-year-old, who had been assigned while in the public schools to a class for the mentally retarded was soon reading at the tenth-grade level.
      Collins had little regard for the expensive gimmicks so dear to the hearts the public school bureaucrats. She said, “If you gave me $20,000 worth audio-visual equipment I'd leave it out on the sidewalk.” She charged around $150 per month tuition and had a waiting list of hundreds. She did not seek federal money declaring, “I don't want any experts telling me what's good for these kids or telling me how to teach.” 
13       Marva Collins was a living rebuke to the Chicago Public School System, and a monthly newspaper published by public school teachers denounced her as a “hoax” who was “carefully constructed as a media event” aimed at “further crippling public education.”14
      Finally, in spite of her remarkable success, Marva Collins was forced to close her doors in 2005. The burden of competing with the tax-subsidized public schools in a tough economy was too much. But the achievements of Marva Collins will remain a striking rebuke to the public school monolith.

      The public school establishment was no doubt happy to see the Marva Collins school disappear. The public system has always been hostile to private effort. As the New York State Superintendent of Education declared in 1849 (quoted above), “Private schools ought not to receive the encouragement of the State or the support of the community.” But sour grapes aside, private effort once again demonstrated its superiority over compulsory political institutions. Marva Collins and Dolores Sheen-Blunt and Msgr. John Mihan and thousands of others are doing what the public school system today is incapable of doing – they are providing inner-city children with a decent education at reasonable cost.


      Like motherhood, public education has been for years an institution above reproach. People may have criticized some aspect of the public system but rarely the underlying principle. Today, however, the idea of state directed “unity” is no longer receiving the uncritical endorsement of just a few years ago. Indeed, to the extent that the public schools have been promoting the collective rather than the individual – and the compulsory rather than the voluntary – they have been eroding precisely the values on which a free and progressive society actually depends. In any event an increasing number of parents are removing their children from the public school system precisely because of its socialization aspects. To the chagrin of public school officials they are choosing instead to educate their children at home.
      An article in REASON appropriately entitled “Home Schooling: Up From the Underground,” told the story of a couple in Amherst, Massachusetts who elected to keep their eight-year-old child out of the public schools. A warrant was issued for their arrest. But instead of running for cover, the couple went on the offensive, initiating a suit against the school authorities.
      The couple could hardly be dismissed as negligent or ignorant parents. The father has a PhD in biochemistry, and his wife was a student at the University of Massachusetts. Objecting to what they regarded as the public school “hidden curriculum” of conformity and anti-intellectualism, they simply believed they could do a better job of educating their own child.
      But school authorities argued that state law requires that educational alternatives be the equivalent of public education, and that home schooling, by its nature, could not satisfy this criterion. The judge, however, supported the couple, declaring that parents had the right to seek educational alternatives for non-religious and well as religious reasons: 

Parents need not demonstrate a formal religious reason for insisting on the right to choose other than public school education since the right of privacy, which protects the right to choose alternative forms of education, grows out of constitutional guarantees in addition to those contained in the First Amendment. Non-religious as well as religious parents have the right to choose from the full range of educational alternatives for their children. 15

       The court went on to declare that the school had no right to force its socialization upon a family:

The question here is ... not whether the socialization provided in the school is beneficial to a child, but rather, who should make that decision for any particular child ... Under our system, the parents must be allowed to decide whether public school education, including its socialization aspects, is desirable or undesirable for their children. 16

       Courts elsewhere have been striking down the notion that “equivalent” education requires state certification of the teacher. The Kentucky Supreme Court declared in 1978, “It cannot be said as an absolute that a teacher in a non-public school who is not certified ... will be unable to instruct children to become intelligent citizens.” In a Michigan case the district court judge declared that “the state ... has failed to produce any evidence whatsoever on the interests served by the requirements of teacher certification and the defendants' experts to the contrary demonstrated that there is no rational basis for such requirements.” 

      Home schooling is an issue which cuts across ideological boundaries. A few years ago, when Louisiana school officials began proceedings against a couple who were educating their four children at their home-based Christian Academy, the Legislature passed a bill deregulating all non-public education in that state. For once, liberals and conservatives were united. Explained the bill's author, they “agreed to disagree on many issues, but they all accept that parents have the primary right and responsibility to educate and care for their children in the manner they deem fit.” After years of wrangling, home schooling finally became legal in all fifty states in 1993.
      With around 1.5 million children now being taught at home, the home schooling movement can no longer be dismissed as a fringe phenomenon. Home schooling books, newsletters and mutual aid organizations abound. Groups of like-minded parents in a neighborhood can band together to share the teaching chores. In fact, families could unite to establish a church and then donate, tax exempt, up to 50% of their incomes to it. The church could then establish a well-funded private school. One home schooling newspaper, THE LINK, claims a national circulation of 25,000 and is packed with ads for hi-tech educational programs of every description, from history to math, and from the bible to anatomy.
      Entire curricula are now available on VCR or CD ROM, bringing to the home a quality of instruction competitive with the best the public schools have to offer. NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC, for example, now offers its 108 years of publication on CD ROM. One of the fastest-growing segments of the personal computer industry is software for home schooling programs. Technology is rendering the public school system obsolete. Home schooling is not for everyone, but it becomes an increasingly viable alternative for those parents who reject the homogenized values of a failing public school system.  Home schooling is now a significant national trend, and has even been the subject of a respectful cover article in a 1998 issue of NEWSWEEK.


      The popular notion that mass education came about only through government action is simply a myth. As we have seen, mass education was on the way long before the state became much involved. Subsequent state monopoly, by squeezing private effort from the field, has undoubtedly retarded rather than advanced the cause of education. In fact, children of the poor were receiving a better education under Joseph Lancaster 190 years ago than they are receiving today in many of our public schools.
      State education has been its own worst enemy. Tax supported, it has been insulated from the public feedback by which the errors and excesses of the past might have been corrected. Current attempts at reform will be equally fruitless. Based on compulsory taxation, the public school system is immunized against reform.
      In a word, state education is a bad idea gone wrong - escecially for the poor. Compulsory support should be ended, and freedom of choice restored to the parent. (The tuition tax credit might be a step in the right direction.) In education as in all other areas of social concern, the key to abundance is not government, but the diverse and voluntary efforts of a free society.
      If education could be returned to the marketplace, the effect would be profound. A myriad of alternatives would emerge. Proprietary schools would flourish, from pre-school to college and from trade schools to the professions. Alternatives of every description would proliferate: home schooling, private schools, industry sponsored schools, church schools, Black Muslim schools, left-wing schools, right-wing schools, storefront schools, community action schools.
      Perhaps the methods of Joseph Lancaster would once again be used with success. Perhaps, like Marva Collins, many of the better teachers who now feel trapped in the public system would find in these voluntary schools a challenge, a freedom and a satisfaction which they do not presently experience. Indeed, if education could be freed from the dead hand of government, all would benefit in the end.







1  From GUIDANCE HANDBOOK FOR TEACHERS, Wiseburn School District, around 1960.

2  Cited in NATIONAL REVIEW BULLETIN, March 2, 1965.

3  Described by Erica Carle in "Education Without Taxation," The Freeman," March, 1962.

4. THE LIFE AND WRITINGS OF DEWITT CLINTON (Baker and Scribner, 1849) p.318, cited       by Carle.

5  James Mill in Westminster Review, October, 1813. Cited by E.G. West, EDUCATION AND THE STATE         (Institute of Economic Affairs, London, 1965, p. 136.

6  Ibid., p 154.

7  Ibid. p. 121(From the 1849 Annual Report of the New York Superintendent of the Common Schools)

8   Ibid. p. 115. (from the 1846 Annual Report of the Secretary of the Massachusetts Board of Education)

9   Quoted by Carle, op. Cit.

10  William Overend, “Alternatives To Public Education, LOS ANGELSES TIMES, June 26, 1980.

11  Ibid.

12  From discussions with Ms Blunt.

13  “Westside Story, An Inner-City School That Works,” TIME, Dec. 26, 1977

14   Paul Gigot, “The Effort To Tear Down A Teaching Hero,” WALL STREET JOURNAL,March 15, 1982.

15  Gerald King, “Home Schooling: Up From the Underground,” REASON, April, 1983.

16  Ibid.