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The government’s pseudo-monopoly on education stifles innovation, keeps quality low and costs high, and traps children in failing and, often times, dangerous schools. These common criticisms are valid and important; however, they ignore a more fundamental problem with the current system. The government's pseudo-monopoly stifles freedom of speech and destroys the marketplace of ideas. People are only free to express new ideas in a system free from government control and coercion. Only in this system can ideas compete and the best ideas can be discovered and spread.   

George Mason economics professor Don Boudreaux illustrated the common objections to the current system when he analogized our school system to a system of government run grocery stores

Under this system, people would have one neighborhood grocery store and could not go to neighboring “public” grocery stores without special permission. They could pay extra to visit a private grocery store, but would still pay their property taxes to the government grocery store. In this analogy, it is obvious that a system of government grocery stores would be a dismal failure compared to our current system. 

Professor Boudreaux’s analogy clearly shows that a government pseudo-monopoly on grocery stores would stifle innovation, create great disparities between rich and poor neighborhoods, and limit people’s abilities to choose how their money is spent. However, he briefly mentions a much more dangerous implication in a parenthetical, “Department of Supermarket officials would no doubt be charged with the responsibility for determining the amounts and kinds of groceries that families of different types and sizes are entitled to receive.” This control is more detrimental to education than simply restricting where someone can go.

In a supermarket, we can see the problems with a small group of government officials who decide what kind and how much food to stock. The government could decide that only raisin bran flakes could be sold and no other cereals. This would be an obvious restriction on our right to choose what we eat, because we could see the shelf and see that all of the options we once had no longer exist. Schools also limit the goods on the shelf, but schools deal in ideas so the restriction is less obvious. While many would recoil in disgust if the government decided what cereal we could buy, few seem concerned that the government decides what ideas are taught.

Governmental bodies decide what ideas are stocked on the shelves at schools through standardized curricula and standardized exams. Even charter schools and home schools are not immune from this control of ideas because students are still required to learn the information on standardized exams. The freedom to express other ideas is stifled, not by an overt threat of force, but by an implicit threat of low-test scores. These top down standards create a chilling effect on speech whereby only the approved ideas are taught, learned, and passed on to future generations.

“But the curricula and standardized tests are designed by experts to ensure the children know what they need to be productive members of society,” some of you may be thinking. 

How do we know this is true? Even if we assume that the experts are wise and have the children’s best interest at heart, how do they know what ideas are the best if there is no point of comparison? When people thought the world was the center of the universe, it was easy to accept that as the truth. There was no competition to that idea and the best minds believed it was true and taught it to others. It wasn’t until some brave people challenged the experts that people discovered the geocentric idea was full of holes and eventually discredited the idea. This competition of ideas is essential for the discovery of truth and knowledge. When a curriculum or standardized exam dictates that a certain set of ideas is most important and excludes all others, we continue to put our faith in experts and ignore other possibilities.

If we want to progress and gain new knowledge, it is essential that there is a free marketplace of ideas. Only in a system of competition and free exchange of ideas can the best ideas emerge. Americans have traditionally held the freedom of speech as sacred for that reason. Without the ability to question and challenge the status quo, we can never advance our knowledge and achieve a better understanding of the world. Allowing the government to dictate what can and cannot be taught in schools is as much an affront to free speech as the government controlling the press or the internet. Just as the news media and the internet should be free from government control and manipulation, so to should education be free from the government.

Photo Credit: Charlottes Photo Gallery