The Center for Public School Renewal
NOTE: Published in slightly different form as "Dear State Board: Deregulate This!" by The Detroit News, 8/31/95.
The Republican's rise to power on the State Board of Education promises to give us several opportunities to analyze popular conservative thinking in coming months. One example is the recent decision to make curriculum recommendations subject to local control rather than mandatory throughout the state. Another popular conservative idea is that of school choice--which includes privatizing education through tuition vouchers. The assumption is that parents will be able to use vouchers to pay for good (private) schools for their children, and poor (public) schools will simply go out of business. In this way the strangle-hold of the public education bureaucracy will be broken and everyone (except public school teachers) will be happy.
This may be a perfect time for the Board to put its belief in the virtues of local control and the importance of families' choices in the lives of children to a real test and call for abolishing compulsory school attendance for all students!
Making school attendance completely voluntary may seem at first to appeal only to home-schoolers and a few other fringe elements. However, given a little more thought, it may appeal to many others, even public school educators.
Compulsory school attendance is an antiquated idea from an earlier age. It started in Michigan in 1906, to get children out of the sweatshops and streets, and provide a growing state economy with a minimally educated citizenry. Today, compulsory attendance is unnecessary, harmful, and ineffective.
It is unnecessary because children and their families know that an education is the key to success in the modern world, and so students will go to school voluntarily. Ninety years ago an education wasn't necessary for work on farms or in factories. Back then children had to be compelled to go to school. A law guaranteeing students 12 years of public schooling--but only if they want it--makes a lot more sense.
Compulsory education is actually harmful in today's society. Disruptive behavior is occurring among school children at earlier ages these days. The best way to control this behavior is to put students out of school. Philosophically, this approach should fit right in with the Governor's "adult crime, adult time" legislation. Forcing public elementary schools to keep students who aren't ready to learn is not only time-consuming, but it sends the wrong message. Very early in their school life students (and parents!) learn that classmates can get away with being disruptive. This creates a climate where progressively worse behavior is condoned because elementary schools and middle schools have no legal way to keep disruptive students out. The American Federation of Teachers' Zero Tolerance policy--which calls for strong, enforced discipline codes--provides a good example of how teachers feel about the situation.
Eliminating compulsory attendance is also the most effective way to privatize education. Bear in mind that research has not shown that private schools are more productive than public schools. Private school teachers are not better educated; they don't use more effective teaching methodologies; they don't have better textbooks; their school calendar is about the same; and most importantly, achievement levels are about the same. What private schools do have is the power to say a permanent "goodbye" (if necessary) to students who are not ready for school.
The real attraction of private schools lies not in their status as competitive free-market institutions, but in their power to exclude students who will not cooperate with the goals of the school. Give this same power to public schools at all levels and we won't have to spend any money on vouchers.
Eliminating compulsory attendance should even appeal to the most devoted free-market disciple. You see, the power to exclude students carries with it a penalty--the loss of tuition for those who are dropped. Plus, public schools won't be able to depend on the law to provide them with a clientele. Consequently, they will need to attract students by improving their programs and thus compete with other schools. The model here is the public community college system, which is competitive, not compulsory, and always seems to have plenty of students.
Making public education completely voluntary will give everyone involved--students, parents, teachers, and school administrators--the opportunity to exhibit that individual sense of responsibility and action that is the essence of the American character. It will also give the schoolhouse a clearer role in society--as a place where education--and not just babysitting--occurs.The Republicans' rise to power on the State Board of Education may provide us with several chances to observe "knee-jerk conservatism" at work in the coming months. The recent wrangling over whether academic standards ought to be voluntary or mandated is a good case in point. Rising from the boardroom we hear the mantra "local control, local control" drowning out any discussion of whether or not this is a good idea.