Public Education is Socialism

by Jeffry R. Fisher

"It's time to admit that public education operates like a planned economy, a bureaucratic system in which everybody's role is spelled out in advance and there are few incentives for innovation and productivity. It's no surprise that our school system doesn't improve; it more resembles the communist economy than our own market economy."

Albert Shanker, President, American Federation of Teachers

What is Socialism?

I am amazed at how often my online arguments must detour to define socialism for people who vehemently support its principles yet just as vehemently deny that they are socialists. Therefore, to head off confusion, I'll put a working definition up front:

Socialism: "Government mandated social engineering (shaping society or shaping individuals to conform to a societal ideal)."

On the political left, that especially involves economic control up to and including collective ownership and operation of commercial enterprise. If you have a different or better definition, or if you can help me to refine mine, please let me know.

Social Engineering

Ever since public schools were first organized, various groups have used (or attempted to use) them to mold future citizens and thereby shape society to their own ideals. You can probably think of a few yourself. I bet it's easy to think of the abuses that run counter to your own ideals. Are you open minded enough to confess any applications by your philosophical allies? There are so many dimensions to ideological school content that I plan to write about them separately in Propaganda.

In addition, as agents of the state, teachers are sometimes asked to do more than teach. State legislators are also trying to draw them into the police state and the nanny state. See Reason Magazine's Mental Detector, and Home Invasion.

Government Ownership

By taxing residents in advance and then giving away education at no additional charge, government is able to claim a virtual monopoly on K-12 education in almost every school district. The government owns the land and the buildings. With very few exceptions, government operates the facilities and employs all of the teachers.


Public education is government owned and operated, and ideologues of various stripes work continuously to effect social engineering by controlling curricula, text books etc. Therefore, public education is socialism.

I feel like the cow in Gary Larsen's Far Side cartoon who suddenly realizes, "Hey! This is grass! We've been eating grass!"

To defend public education, you must first prove that socialism is superior to capitalism. You will never do that. Every tactical claim you make about some classroom level detail will be moot because capitalism can always do better or do the same for lower cost. Always.

We wouldn't allow the government to dispense religion or monopolize food, and we came to our senses in time to avoid nationalizing health care. Why do we continue to tolerate government monopolization of K-12 education? Why to we tolerate a government institution overseeing and second guessing the raising of most families' children? It's an abomination. We should kill it.

Total government control is too extreme. A system where government pays while free enterprise owns and operates it is a much more balanced and moderate compromise between the society's collective interests and citizen's individual liberties.

Unintended Consequences

Is it any wonder that all of today's public education problems look just like the plagues on every socialized business ever to exist anywhere?

Is it any wonder that the organizational structure and delivery mode are mostly unchanged after almost two centuries? How many generations of America's disadvantaged must suffer the cycle of ignorance begetting poverty before education's self serving elite confess that the solution is in liberty, not bureaucracy? America needs a radical liberal to liberate American schools the way Margaret Thatcher liberated Britain's nationalized industries in the 1980s.

Free Market Power

A competitive free market will give many immediate and far ranging benefits, some going far beyond education:

  1. Economy: If we were wise enough to reduce the government's involvement to just investigating reported fraud and recording quarterly enrollment (not daily or hourly attendance taken by hand like the idiotic bureaucracy does now), we could then eliminate 99% of the government education bureaucracy, thereby eliminating over 50% of the cost of K-12 education in this country. Trimming the bloated bureaucracy would yield tax cuts, higher teacher salaries, and improved facilities/equipment in schools.

  2. Secondary economic effects: Reforming a major segment of our economy would spread economic dividends far and wide. Putting all of those former bureaucrats to work in productive enterprises (like picking lettuce) would fuel explosive economic growth all around. Government waste is mind boggling, and every year we allow that waste in education costs all of us dearly.

  3. Investment Induction: Private enterprise buys its own land, buildings and equipment. That means no more tax levies to build new schools. Not only that, but most communities will get a huge, one-time windfall when it auctions off all of its schools and the land under them.

  4. Improved Facilities: Private Enterprise tends to buy better stuff and take better care of it, at least when and where it makes a difference. Government stuff tends to be crap, unless they paid too much for it. If you ever see top quality government property, then you should ask how much it cost, but first make sure you are sitting down.

  5. Liberty: Consumers rule directly over what they choose to buy, voting with their feet and their dollars. It is the most free and democratic system devised by human kind.

  6. Motivation: Entrepreneurs are motivated not only by the quest for profit but by the risk of bankruptcy (Note: The profit margin in any sector tends to be proportional to its perceived level of risk). Managers must tread a fine line between cutting costs and maintaining high quality. Contrarily, in government, bureaucrats are motivated to build as big of an agency under themselves as they can. Big departments mean promotions, and spending all of one's budget is rewarded by increased funding in subsequent years.

  7. Culling: Unnecessary or overly costly versions of goods and services are ruthlessly driven out of existence by bankruptcy or submission to competing management. That includes schools that yield to extreme activists, unlike public school boards that can be compromised by special interest groups and just go on taxing. In government, unpopular goods and services persist year in and year out as politicians make promises they can't keep, and bureaucrats waste ever bigger bundles of money building ever expanding empires to fail to solve problems they themselves created, and then tell taxpayers to cough up another lung to pay for the same things they were supposed to get from the last tax increase.

  8. Participation: Even apathetic parents will need to make an occasional decision, inducing them to pay at least some attention. The odds are high that they'll stumble into a school that encourages them further.

  9. Structural Evolution: The system will become much more dynamic than when centrally controlled, rapidly adapting to new technologies and other changes. Government inertia is mind boggling, and its strangle hold on education is costing our society dearly. See Innovation.

  10. Diversification: Many providers can bring many variations of a product or service to market simultaneously to satisfy a wide variety of tastes. In government, one complex compromise is imposed on nearly everyone, and it satisfies almost nobody. With a free system, we would no longer be saddled with a lowest common denominator curriculum designed to offend nobody. Instead, we could give full flower to each and every culture that has a following. A free system will promote a wide variety to choose from. Instead of everyone being stuck with their school board's decision on whether to have a football team or a theater program (or both), each family will be free to choose a school that caters to its own tastes. As long as government isn't dictating design choices, it doesn't force consensus where none is needed.

  11. Peace: When every family can get what it wants, then none will need to force their preferences on others just to get something for themselves. The school board fights over religion and budgetary trade-offs should end forever.

What about charter schools?

They're a slight reversal of government centralization, but they are still at the mercy of government (see Reason's "Threatened by Success"). Therefore, charter schools merely turn back the clock a few years without curing the fundamental flaw in the system: As long as government owns and operates the schools, education decisions will be driven by political dynamics to the detriment of prosperity and independent citizenship.

Government is like ivy; merely trimming it back is but a temporary respite from its stranglehold. The signs of government's willingness to incrementally creep into charter programs are already appearing. Just keep watching, and you'll realize that charter schools merely demonstrate the economic benefits of independence; they are not a permanent, long term solution. Charter schools are an improvement, so they're worth having, but they should not deter us from demanding the correct solution of total, irrevocable privatization.

Why can't public and private coexist, as with colleges?

When I was younger, I couldn't understand why anyone would pay big bucks for a private college when public was available for next to nothing. Only later did I realize that not everyone could get into top public universities, that I had been very fortunate to get high test scores and grades in one of the very best public school districts in the nation.

At the college level, public and private coexist, but there are some special forces at work, and still there are cracks:

Ironically, it was because of California's high taxes that I took myself and my knowledge elsewhere as soon as I started earning above average money in my career. Perhaps the State of Washington should thank California for first financing my education and then driving me out.

Copyright 2003-2008 by Jeffry R. Fisher: Permission is granted to reproduce this article in whole, but only in combination with attribution, the original title, the original URL, and this copyright notice.
Jeffry R. Fisher is the founder and president of Propagate Ltd, which is liberating digital content as