A troubled Monopoly

By David Feddes

The government has just announced new legislation, making it mandatory for every school-age boy and girl in the country to have a computer at home. According to a government spokesman, computers are so important to a child’s development and future in the work force that it’s now illegal for any child not to have one. Along with the new requirement comes a sweeping government plan to supply these computers to each family free of charge. This will obviously add billions to the budget, and the cost will be covered by sizeable, across-the board tax increases. Under the new plan, the computers will made and sold by a government-owned company, and the operating system will be designed by government programmers. Computers and operating systems from private-sector companies will not qualify for government funding.

Already some people are objecting. Some say that it’s undue government interference to make computers mandatory for every family. Others complain that the free computers aren’t really free at all; taxpayers are footing the bill. Still others don’t like it that the plan pays only for government-manufactured computers. They say that if their kids need a computer, they’d rather have one from Apple or Dell or some other private-sector computer maker. They’d rather have a Windows or Macintosh operating system than a government-designed operating system. A government spokesman has responded that such people still have the option to buy whatever computer they wish and use whatever operating system they want; they’ll just have to do so at their own expense. The government’s plan will pay only for government-produced computers and government-designed operating systems. After all, declared the spokesman, public funds should not support privately-built computers.

That doesn’t satisfy those who favor greater choice. They argue that if all citizens must pay taxes for the plan, then each citizen should have a choice in how the money is spent. They say it’s not fair to take a family’s money away through taxes and then give it back only if the family uses it to buy a computer from the government monopoly. Some lower income families say that once they’ve paid the higher taxes for the government’s computer plan, they won’t have any money left to buy a different kind of computer even if they want to. They’ll have to settle for the government model whether they like it or not.

Another part of the new plan has also aroused opposition. Anyone who accepts a home computer provided by the government is not allowed to use it for religious purposes. They may not install Bible software on it. They may not use the computer to send any e-mail with religious content or visit any religious website or download any material of a religious nature. Each government-built computer will have special software to monitor its use, and anyone who uses it for religious purposes will be taken to court. A judge says it’s unconstitutional for a computer built and paid for by the government to be used for anything religious. People who want to use a computer for religious activities may do so, but they’ll have to buy their own computer for that; they can’t do it on a computer from the government.

Some religious groups and individuals have objected to these restrictions. They say it’s not fair to tax religious people to pay for a plan that will supply them with computers only if they refrain from using those computers for any religious purposes.

But although various people have voiced objections, many others have hailed the new legislation as great news. Some are just glad to be getting a computer free of charge and don’t much care about the details. Others support almost anything that’s done in the name of education and children’s wellbeing, so they support this too. Not surprisingly, the strongest supporters of the plan are the government workers who will be designing and building the new machines and software. These workers have formed powerful unions and political action groups. They oppose any use of government funds to purchase privately built computers with privately designed operating systems like Windows or Macintosh. The unions also support the proposal to ban religion from government computers.

Now that you’ve heard the plan, what do you think of it? Does it sound good to you? Well, there is no such plan. The scenario I’ve described is imaginary. But what if it were real? Would you like it? Does it sound sensible and fair?

Government-Controlled Schooling

The scenario is imaginary concerning computers, but it’s all too real concerning schools. Think about it. The government makes schooling mandatory. It offers a government-designed, government-produced education system that will cost taxpayers in North America over 300 billion dollars this year alone. Parents can’t get any of that tax money back for educating their own children unless they use it for government schools; those who prefer the higher quality of private education must pay for it themselves. And religion is a no-no in government schooling, even in school districts where the vast majority are religious. Meanwhile, the giant teachers’ unions trying to make sure the public schools keep their monopoly on government education dollars.

I suspect that if the government were to pass the imaginary computer legislation I described, most people would be outraged. But many people take the same setup for granted when it comes to the public education system. We need to sit back and think hard about the monopoly of government-controlled schooling. It soon becomes apparent that the system is socialistic: it takes people’s money in taxes and offers them little choice in how to spend it. The system is also anti-religious: in claiming to be religiously neutral, public schooling actually neutralizes religion and bans it from the classroom.

But even if it’s socialistic and antireligious in theory, is the system all that bad in practice? How is it working in the day-to-day lives of ordinary school children?

Let’s go back to our fictional scenario a moment. Suppose the imaginary computer plan went ahead despite objections. Suppose millions of families ended up with machines and software produced by the government monopoly. If those machines worked extremely well, perhaps most people would ignore the objections about no choice and no religion. But what if those government computers had frequent system crashes, wrong calculations, and false data? What if some of the machines had wiring problems and gave children a severe shock every once in a while, making the children afraid even to use the computers? To top it all off, what if, every so often, a computer would explode in a child’s face and kill the child? If that’s what the government-produced computers were doing, would you want one for your child? Or would you favor greater opportunity to buy computers from someone besides the government?

That grim scenario isn’t just fiction. Some schools are malfunctioning as badly as those imaginary computers. Many public school children can’t calculate math problems correctly or read proficiently. Many schools are putting out false data about evolution and sexuality and other vital matters. And in some cases the government schools have become downright shocking and frightening. Drugs, gangs, and violence have made some kids afraid to walk in the schoolhouse door. A few schools have even exploded in kids’ faces. I don’t need to tell you about it. If you watch the news, you’ve seen the youthful gunmen and the bloody bodies being carried away.

Now, I’m not saying that there’s nothing good about public schools or that all of them are ticking time bombs ready to explode. But let’s not pretend the problems aren’t serious or widespread. Many parents simply don’t know much about what’s happening in the schools their kids attend or how frightened their kids really are. A recent study released by the U.S. Department of Education says, “Exposure to crime or threats is far more common in public schools” than in private schools. Also, disrespect for teachers was six times as frequent in public schools. These aren’t the findings of someone eager to bash public schools. The government itself compiled this data on its own schools. So where do you want to send your children?

In all fairness, it must be said that there are some public schools which are quite safe and do a good job of teaching some basic skills, and there are many talented, hard-working teachers who sincerely want to help their students. Still, a survey has found that 83% of parents with kids in private schools are very satisfied, while only 52% with kids in an assigned public school are very satisfied. Indeed, when parents with kids in public schools were asked what they would do if the government gave them vouchers or tax credits to send their children to the school of their choice, 60% of public-school parents said they would send their children to private schools. In other words, the majority of parents who send kids to public schools are doing so simply because those schools have a monopoly on public funds.

Humanism’s Monopoly

The giant national teachers’ unions want to keep it that way. In the United States the largest teachers’ union, the National Education Association says in an official resolution, “The Association opposes the use of public revenues for private, parochial, or other nonpublic pre-K through 12 schools.” The public schools spend vast sums of money per pupil each year, so it’s no wonder the teacher’s unions want to prevent the students (and the money) from going elsewhere.

However, in case you think the NEA isn’t idealistic, listen to another official resolution: “The Association also believes that public education is the cornerstone of our social, economic, and political structure.” The union says public education, not family or church, is the cornerstone of society. No wonder they want the system, not the parents, to have the only choice in where taxpayer money for education is spent. The same NEA resolution goes on to say public education “is of utmost significance in the development of our moral, ethical, spiritual, and cultural values.” Now there’s a scary thought!

How can a school ignore prayer, Jesus, and the Bible, and yet claim to be “of utmost significance” in morality, spirituality, and ethics? Well, the NEA is following the same path as the leading pioneers in government education from earlier times. Consider the two most prominent men in the history of public schooling, Horace Mann and John Dewey.

Horace Mann, often called “the father of public education,” was a Unitarian; he didn’t believe Jesus is God. Back in the mid-1800’s Horace Mann worked hard to make schooling mandatory and to get government-funded public schools to take over from parochial and religious and private community schools and home education. Horace Mann said, “What the church has been for medieval man the public school must become for democratic and rational man. God will be replaced by the concept of the public good… The common schools… shall create more far-seeing morality than has ever existed among communities of men.”

John Dewey made his impact early in the 1900’s, especially in shaping the approach of the major teachers’ colleges to public education. Dewey did not believe in God at all. He was a signer of the Humanist Manifesto and the first president of the American Humanist Association. Dewey wrote, “Faith in the prayer-hearing God is an unproved and outmoded faith. There is no God, and there is no soul… There is no room for fixed, natural law or moral absolutes.” From that starting point, Dewey defined his vision of education. “Education,” he said, “is the fundamental method of social progress and reform… the teacher is always the prophet of the true god and the usherer of the true kingdom of god.”

What a heap of humanistic nonsense! The Bible says, “See to it that no one takes you captive through hollow and deceptive philosophy, which depends on human tradition and the basic principles of this world rather than on Christ” (Colossians 2:8). With school just around the corner, we need to ask: Are the public schools depending on hollow humanism rather than on the divine Christ? Are we and our children being taken captive by an educational system built on the deceptive, worldly philosophy of John Dewey and Horace Mann?

When a giant teachers union like the NEA provides public education without prayer, Jesus, or Scripture and yet declares itself to have “utmost significance in the development of our moral, ethical, spiritual, and cultural values,” it is pursuing the same goal as the original champions of public education. The goal is to replace biblical Christianity with a new religion of humanism. This doesn’t mean that every public school teacher denies the deity of Christ like Horace Mann or that every educator is a card-carrying humanist like John Dewey. It simply means that the overall framework of public education has become as Christ-denying and humanistic as its founders wanted it to be.

There are still many Christian teachers and administrators in public schools. Some are people I know and admire greatly, and I applaud their efforts to help students as much as possible and make the best of a bad situation. If you’re a Christian teacher in a public school, don’t take this article as an attack on your work. Keep on teaching. Government guidelines may restrict and hamper you, but you can still shine for Christ and help many youngsters. I don’t want to discourage or demean any Christians who are trying to help children and make public education better.

Still, like it or not, public education on the whole has big problems: problems with academics, problems with physical safety, problems with a godless humanism that is morally and spiritually bankrupt. Although certain teachers are better than the system and can make a difference for their students, the problems in the overall system aren’t likely to improve as long as public schools and teachers’ unions maintain a monopoly on public funding and use their political clout to make it hard for families to choose alternatives to the government schools. Wherever a monopoly exists, price tends to go up and quality tends to go down.

As J. Gresham Machen once wrote, “A public-school system … is of benefit only if it is kept healthy at every moment by the absolutely free possibility of the competition of private schools…  but when once it becomes monopolistic it is the most perfect instrument of tyranny which has yet been devised.”

Challenging the Monopoly

A lot of people are challenging the government monopoly and re-thinking the whole idea of public education. They’re not satisfied with trying to put a little religion back in the public schools. They’re not content to bring back vague classroom prayers to an unknown God, or tone down evolution a bit, or clean up sex education, or get rid of drugs, or reform some other aspect of public schools. They’re questioning the very concept of public schools, and more and more parents are choosing alternatives for their own children.

One alternative to public education is home schooling, where parents teach their children right in their own home. Back in 1980, only about 12,500 children were involved in home instruction. In the past few decades, that number has skyrocketed into the millions. As home schooling has become more common, teaching materials have also grown rapidly in quality and quantity. The internet has provided access to countless resources. Many of these resources are shaped by a Christian perspective. Parents who want to teach their children at home can use great teaching materials, and they have many opportunities to connect and cooperate with other home schoolers.

Another alternative, more common than home schooling, is the private school. Many millions of children are enrolled in private schools. Some parents send their children to a private school for better academics. Others choose private schools because they want an education that reflects their own religious beliefs and priorities. Roman Catholic and Lutheran parochial schools have been growing. Also, there’s been phenomenal growth in parent-controlled Christian private schools. This growth in private schools and home schooling has come despite the fact that parents must pay the bill themselves after already having paid considerable taxes for government schools.

Have you ever considered an alternative to the troubled monopoly of the public schools? Have you ever looking into a Christian school or home schooling? Have you ever talked with someone else about it? If not, perhaps you should. If you know of a good Christian school in your area, drop in or make an appointment with someone there. Find out how that school might serve your family. If you’re interested in home schooling and you know someone who is already teaching children at home, talk to that person. Visit a meeting of a local home school support group. If you’re not really sure where to get started in finding out more about Christian schools or home schooling.

Some politicians and teachers’ unions are uneasy about the growth in private schools and home schooling. Even where they still have a monopoly on public funds, they know it’s a troubled monopoly, and in some cases they resort to heavy-handed tactics to keep their monopoly. They oppose giving parents any choice in what schools should receive their tax money, and they try to heap regulations on private schools and home schoolers.

For example, the NEA says that the government should require home-educated children to meet all requirements of the local school district. But what if that were turned around? What if the government required public schools to match the safe, drug-free environment of home schoolers? What if the government required every public school to match the academic standard of the average home school child, which is at least 30 percentile points above the average public school child on standardized tests? What if public schools would lose their government funding and be forced to close down if they couldn’t match the moral standards and academic excellence of private Christian schools? Most public schools would be out of business! And yet the public school teachers unions act as though they and their troubled schools ought to be the standard to which all other kinds of education must conform.

Anyone who cares about our society and our children should resist such foolishness and support greater choice in education, for reasons of academic excellence and also freedom of thought. I’ve lived in both Canada and the United States, and in both countries, there’s great emphasis on freedom of speech and freedom of thought, without interference from the government. That’s true in theory, but in practice, this freedom is undermined by the public school monopoly. Sure, you’re free to think and speak as you like–but a government-controlled school has been teaching you what to think and how to speak, seven hours a day, from kindergarten on up. Some supporters of public education, especially the teachers unions, say that society will become fragmented if the majority of citizens aren’t trained in the public system. They say public education is indispensable as a unifying factor in society. But is that so? Does cooperation and unity depend on a government brainwashing its citizens to think alike? That’s not what a free country is about.

My identity as a free citizen makes me want alternatives to government schools, and more importantly, so does my identity as a Christian. The Bible says, “Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind” (Romans 12:2). That’s not just a verse from long ago; it is the Word of God right now, and it has huge implications for education. As a Christian, I am called to think differently from a world that doesn’t acknowledge the rule of Jesus. I can’t just settle for whatever monopoly the world throws at me. I can’t just squeeze myself or my children into a mold imposed by society. I and my family need to be different. If anyone is going to monopolize the way we think, it had better be the Lord Jesus Christ, not the government. We need to be transformed by Christ through the renewing of our minds. That’s not likely to happen in a setting where prayer, Jesus, and the Bible are ignored.

We have to find a better way.

By David Feddes. Originally broadcasted on the Back to God Hour and published in The Radio Pulpit.