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JISHOU, HUNAN — Recently, I wrote a reaction to the Christian rightwing hijacking of the Texas Board of Education, and the anti-public education views of one of its members. A visitor named Joey swung by this week, and left this comment:

That a functioning democracy requires, first, a well-educated, literate public and, second, a public that shares the same knowledge about the history and political philosophy of the nation is the basic thinking of any statist, when public schools are to serve as the chief means to achieve this homogeneity of thinking.

It’s no wonder there are parents and organization already determined to abolish public schools by opting out from compulsory education.

It’s an effective way to fight tyranny, particularly the tyranny of the majority.

You will note that Joey has nothing directly to say about the Texas BOE, but definitely agrees that public education is a Bad Thing.

I don’t, though I am a critic of public education. My reply was this:

Excuse me? You need to read up on some history. One of those “statists” who favored public education was Thomas Jefferson. George Washington also recognized the need for a well educated public. Read his farewell address.

So, by your argument, both these Founding Fathers favored tyranny.

In fact, the Founders recognized the dangers that a “tyranny of the majority” would present to a representative democracy, and built safeguards (”checks and balances”) to prevent it. The USA is also a republic, in which the person who gets the most votes wins the race … and governs everyone.

Moving on, each school district in the USA is supervised by an elected school board. These people have to run for office. If you don’t like your local school’s policies, vote for someone else, or run for a post yourself. You don’t need to throw the baby out with the bathwater.

Compulsory education means everyone has to go to school. State education law do not require everyone to attend public school; they just have to attend school. That school can be in their home, in a church school, or a private school, or even in a different state. So, how is this tyrannical?

Abolishing public schools is the dumbest damn idea I have ever heard. You would sentence a majority of the schoolchildren in this country to no education at all. Contrary to what you believe, an uneducated public paves the road to tyranny.

If you want to see a real tyranny of public education, read up on North Korea. Your imaginary “tyranny of the majority” here in the US is but a shadow of a ghost of a figment compared to the real thing.

Not to be outdone, Joey (his website is here) provided an even lengthier rebuttal. Rather than keep the debate in the comments section, I have chosen to move it here.

Here’s Joey’s most recent remarks.

I don’t deify humans. Jefferson and Washington had character, unlike so many charlatans today in public “service”. But their recognition of the importance of a good education does not imply their support of the State-centric system of coercion that is in place in our nation, that forces the young and the ignorant to lap up all the pablum that passes for “good” teaching in the bureaucrat-infested concentration camps that we call public schools today.

These Founding Fathers encouraged liberty and personal responsibility. You explain to me how that squares with the State dictating universally that all children must receive the kind of education that the State mandates under penalty of removing the child from the home, if the parents refuse to comply.

As to democracy, I’m not into that kind of religion either. I believe in representative government, yes, which is why I support a republican form of government and a democratic process for the selection of representatives. But that’s as far as it goes. I’m not interested in collectivist methods for getting things done. Open collaboration does not require majority ruling. That is to say, Liberty does not require Democracy.

You say the U.S. is a republic? Really? Is that why you refer to it as a democracy first and foremost?

Each school district in the USA is supervised by bureaucrats attached to the state tit for their milk, for the lion’s share of funds comes from the states’ capitals, which means that lobbyists such as teachers unions control the dynamics of the game as pure centralists that they are. They make a whole career of it “for the children”. It’s a naivete of the worst kind to assume that voters will kick the rascals out, when the very same voters have been brainwashed all their lives for generations by the same bunch of bozos to look up to them for enlightenment.

But if you believe in democracy and its ability to change this corruption of its own making…be my guest! Ha!

The baby is a rag doll. So dump it and the water! It’s the only way.

Who is the State to compel all parents to instruct their own children? The State is not a person nor can it love the children better than the parents. The State is a collectivist means by which the elite control the people, using the people’s own weakness to control them. It’s job is small: enforce justice. But it takes on more and more because it loves to grow and be a god walking on earth.

Since you think like a typical statist, you believe that only the State could do a better job than the parents at caring for children that do not belong to it. You suffer from the same arrogance that all so-called educated elitist suffer from, which attempt to arrogate to themselves divinity-like powers to change the life of others who you could care less about, since you don’t even know them all at a personal level nor ever will.

That’s why you can dare say with a straight face that the abolition of government schools would “sentence a majority of the schoolchildren in this country to no education at all.” You don’t understand parental love and responsibility. You only understand State worship.

Get the State off our backs and we will have the means to hire better teachers than those who don’t even know how to compete for their dough, because they’re dependent on tax revenues extorted from working families to pay for their incompetent performance year in, year out.

Tyranny takes many forms. North Korea’s totalitarianism is of the old-fashion kind. But America’s is “fascism with a smile”. Yet it’s still the same thing underneath the facade: State-driven coercion to force the people to adopt beliefs that will keep the State in power at the expense of the little guy.

I get the feeling I’m either debating a rabid libertarian or a Randian objectivist. I have little patience for either, but here I go anyway. I hope others can join in the discussion, too. I’m going to go point by point, because Joey presumes much and argues a lot.

Thomas Jefferson and George Washington were in fact “statists,” to use Joey’s terminology. Both saw popular education as necessary for the continued existence of the United States. Jefferson was an early champion of public education in Virginia, and believed public education should be provided nationally. If government could not make education compulsory, then it should at least make it free, to encourage parents to send their kids to school.

Further, Jefferson wrote James Madison in 1787 a letter in which he says:

“And say, finally, whether peace is best preserved by giving energy to the government or information to the people. This last is the most certain and the most legitimate engine of government. Educate and inform the whole mass of the people. Enable them to see that it is their interest to preserve peace and order, and they will preserve them. And it requires no very high degree of education to convince them of this. They are the only sure reliance for the preservation of our liberty.” (Forrest version) ME 6:392

“Educate … the whole mass of the people.” Sounds pretty statist to me.

Washington, in his State of the Union address of 1790, had this to say:

Nor am I less persuaded, that you will agree with me in opinion, that there is nothing which can better deserve your patronage, than the promotion of Science and Literature. Knowledge is in every country the surest basis of publick happiness. In one, in which the measures of government receive their impression so immediately from the sense of the community, as in our's, it is proportionately essential. To the security of a free Constitution it contributes in various ways: By convincing those who are entrusted with the publick administration, that every valuable end of government is best answered by the enlightened confidence of the people: And by teaching the people themselves to know, and to value their own rights; to discern and provide against invasions of them; to distinguish between oppression and the necessary exercise of lawful authority; between burthens proceeding from a disregard to their convenience, and those resulting from the inevitable exigencies of society; to discriminate the spirit of liberty from that of licentiousness, cherishing the first, avoiding the last, and uniting a speedy, but temperate vigilance against encroachments, with an inviolable respect to the laws.

Whether this desirable object will be best promoted by affording aids to seminaries of learning already established, by the institution of a national university, or by any other expedients, will be well worthy of a place in the deliberations of the Legislature.

Or, to put it more succinctly, educate the people.

Of course, it took another half-century for widespread free public education to take hold in the North, and even longer in the South. Until then, children learned at home, in privately run schools, in church schools, or not at all. The influx of immigrants from all over Europe in the late 19th century provided the impetus for near universal public education, as a way to assimilate all the immigrant kids, especially in the cities.

In the second paragraph, Joey says “all children must receive the kind of education that the State mandates under penalty of removing the child from the home, if the parents refuse to comply.” There is some truth to this statement, but only some. Compulsory education means all children must attend school from ages 6 to their teens — the cutoff date depends on the state they live in. It does not require the child to attend a public school, however, if the child attends a private or religious school.

The laws regarding homeschooling vary widely from state to state, however. Parents must in some way show they are covering the same material as the public school, either by providing lesson plans to a state office or by merely signing an agreement that they will. Some states monitor homeschoolers closely; others not at all.

Now, non-compliance with the state laws means your kids are legally truants, and most state laws permit the state to put your kids in school with or without your permission. If the kids have to removed from the home to make it possible, then that’s what happens.

Is this “statism?” That depends on your definition of the term. Is it statism to require all homeowners to pay property taxes, all drivers to be licensed, all restaurants to be inspected to see if they are sanitary? One function of government is to ensure the safety and welfare of the population, and by extension, the government. That’s why we have laws.

Now Joey delves into political science, which admittedly is not my strong suit. He objects to democracy as a “religion,” yet favors the democratic election of representatives. He favors a republican form of government, and rejects “collectivist” methods for getting things done. “Liberty does not require Democracy,” he says.

All right, let’s take it from the top. The USA is a republic, since it has a chief executive elected by the population. It is also a representative democracy, since the electorate chooses representatives to the legislative body, who act in the public’s stead. The extent to which the United States would be a republic or a democracy was the subject of the Federalist Papers, which I have not read in more than 30 years. Whether liberty requires democracy was one of the issues debated between the time of the Articles of Confederation (massive fail) and the ratification of the Constitution (massive success).

A few blog posts back I offered a mini-lesson in civics. I’ll repeat the main point here. In a republic, especially a representative democracy, there is basically a contract between the electorate and the government. The electorate says, “We will let you run the government, since we have a lot of other things to do, until you fuck up. Then we vote somebody else in. Meanwhile, we will continue to obey the laws and try to be responsible members of the community.” The government says, “Deal. But if you start breaking the laws or being a threat to the commonweal, then we get to come after you.”

The key idea is that the public can’t pick and choose which laws to obey, or which president to follow. If the “wrong” guy wins the election, or crappy laws get enacted, tough. Quit whining. Wait for the next election cycle. If the country seems to be running counter to what you would prefer, tough. Quit whining and deal with it.

And yeah, Joey, I did call the USA a republic, because it is. I did not say it was a “democracy first and foremost.” I said the Founders saw the dangers of a representative democracy. Don’t misquote me.

Ah, the education bureaucracy! Everyone’s favorite whipping post. Let me clarify a few points here, in case some don’t understand how public education works on the state level. Each state as a Department or Board of Education, which the governor usually appoints subject to legislative approval. The Ed Dept. sets the state curriculum (or “scope and sequence” in modern edu-jargon) which all schools in the state have to follow.

(This is where the republican form of government comes into play. The electorate chooses the governor and legislators, who in turn choose the state BOE/DOE. No direct democracy there. Still with me, Joe?)

At the local level, each school district has a popularly elected school board, who hire a school superintendent to be the chief executive. He appoints his staff, and the district office handles the day-to-day operations of the schools. The school board keeps an eye on things, but ideally doesn’t intrude into daily operations (like hiring or firing teachers, approving lesson plans, and such).

Some school districts, especially in big cities, have another player, the teachers’ union. Contrary to what Joey alleges, unions are only influential (or even existent) in the big cities. The American Federation of Teachers is a union. The National Education Association is a “professional organization.” It ain’t a union, at least in the AFL-CIO sense of the word. Most NEA states do not have collective bargaining, for example.

Now, despite Joey’s bluster, it is possible for the electorate to throw the bums out and elect a radically different school board. Conservative Christians have managed to do it in many school districts, with generally disastrous results (see Dover, Pennsylvania, as an example), but it is by no means as impossible as Joey says.

Superintendents have in fact been fired, too. It happened in Louisville, Kentucky, just a few years ago. (OK, technically, the school board did not renew Dr. Stephen Daeschner’s contract. Same difference)

Is the system corrupt? Since it seems to be self-perpetuating, Joey says yes. The federal government (all three branches) is also self-perpetuating. Is it corrupt? It depends on who asks the question, I think.

Joey says he believes in the republican form of government, but at the same time rejects any motion that the State has any authority to enforce the law. Maybe he can explain the apparent contradiction, because I sure can’t.

I’m going to pull this paragraph out.

Who is the State to compel all parents to instruct their own children? The State is not a person nor can it love the children better than the parents. The State is a collectivist means by which the elite control the people, using the people’s own weakness to control them. It’s job is small: enforce justice. But it takes on more and more because it loves to grow and be a god walking on earth.

The State enforces the laws, which the legislators (elected by the people) passed and the governor (elected by the people) signed. One of those laws is the requirement that all kids get educated, somewhere, somehow. Joey makes it sound like the stormtroopers are busting down parents’ doors and hauling the kids off to re-education camps, never to be seen again.

As for my saying abolishing public schools would condemn a majority of student to no education, that does not make me a “Statist.” It makes me a realist. All parents cannot teach their children equally well. Some may have lots of time and money, and skills. Others, not. Jefferson and Washington (and others) recognized this plain fact, and that’s why they encouraged there be public schools. You can’t have a functional democracy (ooo, that dirty word again!) without an educated public. It’s one of those crazy ideas from the Enlightenment, and dare I say, ancient Greek philosophy. More importantly, the public has to get essentially the same education, which means there have to be laws and regulations to ensure that it happens. People are not the most reliable or high-minded of creatures, despite what Ayn Rand and the libertarians would like to believe.

Finally, after his litany of anti-statist complaints, Joey gets around to the second-favorite whipping post of the critics of public education — the teachers.

Never, never, never tell a teacher that teachers in general are “incompetent ” or could not make it in a competitive marketplace, aka “the real world.” It tends to get us really pissed off.

Yes, there are incompetent teachers. Yes, their positions are frequently overprotected, so it’s hard to fire really bad teachers. And yes, a few could probably never do anything other than be teachers. But to paint with a broad brush and imply all teachers are like that is irresponsible and sheer demagoguery. Despite your opinions, Joey, there are thousands of dedicated teachers out there putting in long hours in and out of school planning lessons, grading assignments, worrying whether little Billy is getting enough to eat at home or whether little Sally’s stepfather is getting too touchy-feely with her. They put up with incompetent administrators, crazy (or apathetic) parents, ridiculous demands from state curricula, the NCLB Act and all those flippin’ tests, and criticism from nutjobs who figure they know better than the teachers do.

You try teaching 25-35 students for a day, or better yet, a week. It’s not easy. Walk a mile in our moccasins, then maybe you can dump on teachers. Maybe. Until then, STFU.

So, you want to scrap compulsory public education, Joey. Tell us what would replace it. Give us a system that would simultaneously provide the kind of national identity that Jefferson and Washington clearly wanted (and you apparently don’t) and the kind of education the children need for the 21st century.

I anxiously await your response.