Review: Sheldon Richman, Separating School and State

Years ago, the social critic Ivan Illich argued that a compassionate society would have in its constitution a clause, like the First Amendment to the US Constitution, which would read "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of education". In Separating School and State: How to Liberate American Families, Sheldon Richman observes that the arguments for separation of Church and State apply without alteration to the separation of school and State. People use the words "God", and "education" to refer to ...something... which they obviously consider important but which they can define only in terms which others will hotly dispute. People gain from a separation of Church and State by the reduction of costs involved in resolving disputes over the meaning of "God" and the implications of God's revealed word, the Vedas/Torah/Koran/New Testament. The authors of the US Constitution resolved disputes over the meaning of "God" by the (now obvious) device of letting people find their own meaning and barring the State from taking sides.

If only they had done the same for education.

In six chapters, 101 pages of text and notes, plus acknowledgements, preface (by Jacob Hornberger), introduction (by Richard Ebiling), appendix, and index, Richman examines the institution of government-operated school from historical, sociological, political, and moral perspectives.

Chapters 1 ("Whither Public Schools") and 2 ("What's Wrong with Public Schools") motivate the subsequent examination of this institution and possible options. Chapter 3, "Why there are Public Schools", sketches contemporary (historical, at the time of establishment) arguments for tax support of school and for compulsory attendance laws. Richman devotes chapter 4 ("Opponents of Public Schools") mostly to contemporary (historical) critics of government-operated schools. He quotes (p. 66) an early critic of compulsory attendance:...
"When (Auberon) Herbert anticipated an objection to his argument--that the bureaucracy will be responsive to public opinion--he resorted to what has become known as rational-ignorance analysis":...
When a state department becomes charged with some great undertaking, there accumulates so much technical knowledge around its proceedings that without much labor and favorable opportunities it becomes exceedingly difficult to criticize successfully its action. It is a serious study in itself to follow the minutes and the history of a great department, either like the Local Board or the Education Department. And if a discussion should arise, the same reason makes it difficult for the public to form a judgment in the matter. A great office which is attacked envelopes [sic] itself, like a cuttlefish, in a cloud of technical statements which successfully confuses the public, until its attention is drawn off in some other direction. It is for this reason, I think, that state departments escape so easily from all control, and that such astounding cases of recklessness and mismanagement come periodically to light, making a crash which startles everybody for the moment.
As an aside, George Orwell uses the cuttlefish metaphor in his essay "Politics and the English Language":...
The great enemy of clear language is insincerity. When there is a gap between one's real and one's declared aims, one turns as it were instinctively to long words and exhausted idioms, like a cuttlefish spurting out ink. In our age there is no such thing as "keeping out of politics." All issues are political issues, and politics itself is a mass of lies, evasions, folly, hatred, and schizophrenia.
Either cuttlefish haunt the minds of English writers or Orwell recalled Herbert.
Richman does not cite Orwell among the critics of State education, although he could have:...
The terrifying thing about modern dictatorships is that they are something entirely unprecedented. Their end cannot be foreseen. In the past, every tyranny was sooner or later overthrown, or at least resisted because of "human nature," which as a matter of course desired liberty. But we cannot be at all certain that human nature is constant. It may be just as possible to produce a breed of men who do not wish for liberty as to produce a breed of hornless cows. The Inquisition failed, but then the Inquisition had not the resources of the modern state. The radio, press censorship, standardized education and the secret police have altered everything. Mass suggestion is a science of the last twenty years, and we do not know how successful it will be.
George Orwell, "Review of Russia under Soviet Rule by N. de Basily", Essays, (Knopf, 2002).
One has only to to think of the sinister possibilities of the radio, State-controlled education, and so forth, to realize that 'the truth is great and will prevail' is a prayer rather than an axiom.
George Orwell, "Review of Power; A New Social Analysis by Bertrand Russell", Essays, (Knopf, 2002).

In chapter 5, "Without Public Schools", Richman criticizes reform efforts like charter schools and vouchers, which he asserts will succumb to State intrusion following the demand for accountability for tax funds. He makes a valid point here, but "the best is the enemy of the good". The public is wise to fear leaps into the dark. Workable options outside the State school system must evolve before the public will abandon the neighborhood school. Policies, such as charter schools, tuition tax credits, tuition vouchers, and Parent Performance Contracting, which foster this growth and simultaneously reduce the taxpayers' commitment to the State-monopoly system, will more likely bring an end to the State-monopoly system than will visionary arguments alone. In chapter 5 also, Richman attempts to visualize US society society with an uncoerced market in education services.

Richman observes that the State cannot subsidize education without a definition of "education". Operationally, the State defines "education" to be whatever happens to students in those institutions which the State calls "schools" or in those institutions which authorized accreditation agencies call "accredited schools" (unless whatever happens is bad, then the State blames parents). In two earlier posts, "Exercise for the Reader" and "Why School (Part I)" we gave some brief consideration to the definition of "education" without reaching a conclusion. Observe that we got as far as defining "education" as an investment, and then defining "investment" generally. We have not yet specified which activities qualify as "education".

In the appendix, Richman presents a brief and balanced overview of the statistical case for and against a decline in school effectiveness.

In the final section of the appendix, Richman makes explicit one reason for slighting statistical arguments: that they are subject to interpretation and rely on uncontrolled data. Who can say how society would otherwise have evolved without government schooling? He is clearly correct. We cannot rewind Earth's history and run it forward 100 times, in a controlled experiment. Statistical arguments serve two principal functions: as a demonstration of expertise and to rebut assertions from the other side (e.g., homeschoolers' performance belies the argument that high performance depends on schools, juvenile arrest and hospitalization statistics belie the contention that schools reduce crime).

A further argument against (over)reliance on performance data relates to the infinite regress of "why?" questions. As a wise lady from the ETS once observed to a workshop of Campbell High School teachers: "We can't measure what's important, so we measure what we can." Those who rely on statistical summaries of scores on standardized tests of Reading or Math concede too much of the argument to supporters of compulsory attendance and tax subsidies. Who says that these are important, anyway? How much Russian Literature did Olga Korbut read in her early years? What increase in reading vocabulary compensates for how large an increase in taxation and reduction of children's freedom?

Sadly (inevitably), Richman fails to deliver on the promise implicit in his subtitle: "How to Liberate American Families". The system endures, and no reformer has suggested a way around the organized interests which maintain it. It makes no more sense for those of us who are not in government to argue about what government "should" do than it does for the swimming survivors of a mid-ocean shipwreck to argue about what sharks "should" eat. Fortunately, "we" do not have to arrive at a collective answer to the question: "How do we abolish State education?" "We" can, each of us individually, decide to homeschool. If your (US) State makes this difficult, read O. Henry's "The Ransom of Red Chief", and encourage your children to "drop out" in school. Quite a few poor minority children have discovered this option.

Take care. Homeschool if you can.



These reflections bring to mind a discussion on this point, between the writer and a slaveholding friend in Kentucky, on Christmas morning, 1846. We had asserted, that until mankind were far in advance of what they now are, irresponsible power over our fellow beings would be, as it is, abused. Our friend declared it his conviction, that the cruelties of slavery existed chiefly in imagination, and that no person in D__ County, where we then were, but would be above ill-treating a helpless slave. We answered, that if his belief was well-founded, the people of Kentucky were greatly in advance of the people of New England--for we would not dare say as much as that of any school district there, letting alone counties. No, we would not answer for our own conduct even on so delicate a point.
Olive Gilbert, The Narrative of Sojourner Truth (1850, Dover 1997, p. 48).



From the Office of Elections:

MATSUMOTO, Denise L. 67,851 40.6%
LEE, Carol Mon 37,819 22.6%
KIRKPATRICK, Malcolm 20,519 12.3%

That's a lot of seriously deluded people, whichever way you interpret that result.
One year Denise had two no-name opponents (me and one other nobody). That year, I made it into the general election and 135,000 peple voted for me. Denise got 150,000 votes. She runs on her record of supporting reform, which is a record of failure (given that the DOE has bumbled in the national cellar for the last 20 years).


Honolulu Community College Candidates' Forum

On Monday, 2008-09-15, at 11:30, Board of Education candidates presented their views on reform of the Hawaii DOE to an audience assembled at the HCC cafeteria. The committee who organized the event announced a schedule of candidaies' forums, with Mayoral candidates one day and State Representatives another. With only Board candidates in appearance for this round, we had time for more extended responses to questions. Oahu at-large candidate Garrett Toguchi did not appear, as usual.
HCC Go Vote Committee

Question 1: "Please tell us your background and your qualifications for office. Secondly, please tell us, if your view, what the challenges are that our education system faces and how you plan to address them as a member of the Board of Education." 6 minutes each, 48 minutes total
Question 2: From audience. 90 seconds each, 12 minutes altogether
Question 3: From audience. 90 seconds each, 12 minutes altogether
Question 4: "Please share with us any final comments you wish to make." 2 minutes each, 16 minutes altogether
The Honolulu District candidates sat in the following order (from stage left): Malcolm Kirkpatrick, Denise Matsumoto, and Carol Mon Lee. Denise came prepared; she had a page of double-spaced print in a rather large font. She observed, sotto voce, that the question as the forum coordinator presented it was "obstacles" and not "challenges".

I had no problem winging it: the Hawaii State school system yields one of the worst results, as measured by standardized test scores, of any State in the nation. Juvenile arrests fall in summer, when school is not in session. Juvenile hospitalizations fall in summer. It does not take 12 years at $12,000 per pupil-year to teach a normal child to read and compute. Most vocational training occurs more effectively on the job than in a classroom. State provision of History and Civics instruction is a threat to democracy, just as State operation of newspapers would be (is, in totalitarian countries). The system has more than enough money. There is no amount of money so great that these parasites cannot waste it. The major obstacle to effective reform is the cartel of public sector unions through whose sticky fingers flows an annual revenue stream of $2.4 billion+ per year. Do not rely on politicians to fix this mess. Homeschool.

As happened at the Hawaii Kai Neighborhood Board forum, one or two candidates spoke of a vision in which there is a highly qualified teacher in every classroom and in which all Hawaii schools perform at or above the 50th percentile nationwide. Again, you might as well envision winning the Indianapolis 500 in a stock D-9 Caterpillar bulldozer. That's not visionary. That's delusional.

Aside from those witless pipe-dreams, I do not recall that anyone (aside from your humble narrator) said anything other than "Vote for me" and "The system needs more money". Perhaps it was the acoustrics that made such work out of paying attention.

One question from the audience concerned enhanced parent input. I reiterated the plea that parents homeschool.

The Makiki Neighborhood Board has a forum scheduled on Wednesday, 2008-09-18, 7:30 at the Makiki Recreation Center Arts and Crafts building.


Rather Biased

Charles Gibson, caught on a live mike on the set of ABC News: "Any distortion or misrepresentation is justified if it helps elect President Obama."

His exact words.

It took CBS two years to fire Dan Rather for his promotion of forged documents smearing President Bush in the run-up to the 2004 election. How long will it take ABC to fire Charles Gibson?


Pearl City Candidate Forum

The Pearl City Community Association invited candidates to introduce themselves to voters on Friday, 2008-Sept.-5 at the Momilani Community Center. Unusually, Office Of Hawaiian Affairs candidates and Board Of Education candidates preceeded candidates for State House, State Senate, and Mayor. The three Honolulu District candidates appeared. The Oahu at-large candidates appeared, with the exception of Marcia Linville, who notified event organizers that she could not appear. The lovely and charming Representative Lynn Finnegan surprised me by recalling my messages in opposition to institutional early childhood education. Denise Matsumoto graciously answered some of my questions about the powers of the Board even though she seemed irritated with my criticism of the DOE generally. Several legislators recognized me before I recognized them. In a representative democracy people skills matter. A memory for faces and names I do not have (but then, I'm not yet a successful politician). I stayed to hear all candidates although I probably will not change my mind about the Mayor's race. The event helped me make my OHA choice.

Richard Fernandez (Belmont Club) wrote: "... a cynic might argue that a good rule of thumb for judging movements is to conclude that the more high minded a cause pretends to be, the more sordid are its actual motives." A similar thought occurs to me when candidates for our State legislature and State-wide Board of Education speak of children as "our most important resource", when they promise "accountability" in the government school system, when they invite voters to envision transforming the State-wide school district such that every school is in the nation's top 50% of schools, or when they talk of placing highly-qualified teachers in every classroom. Before we consider the gap between lofty assertions and sordid practice, let us consider some specific rhetorical devices.

A. Who says children are "our" resources? Darrow Aiona, a candidate for one of the Oahu at-large BOE seats, for one. "Our" implies collective ownership, and so collective decision-making. This assumprion predisposes the choice of governance methods against control by individual parents. Children occupy an anomalous legal status: somewhere between "people" and "property". Under US law, children do not have the rights of adults (e.g., to vote, consent to sex, enlist in the armed forces, buy firearms, consume alcohol, etc.). In this sense, therefore, children are not legally "people". Adults may transfer legal control of children (adoption). In a market economy, the device of private property combines legal control (including the power to transfer legal control) over physical objects with the incentive to use those objects for benign purposes. The benign purpose is promoted by the proscription on coercion in private exchange. When uncoerced individuals exchange goods and services to which they have title, both sides to the exchange benefit (otherwise, why would they act?). Owners have a strong incentive to maintain and enhance the value of material to which they have title. Similarly, absent a State assumption of control over children, parents have a strong incentive to enhance the value of their children. I argue axiomatically, here:
1. Most parents love their children and want their children to outlive them.
2. If you live among people, there are basically three ways to make a living: (2.1) you can beg, (2.2) you can steal, (2.3) you can trade goods and services for other people's goods and services.
3. Most parents accept proposition #2 and prefer option (2.3) for their children.
4. Therefore, most parents want their children educated to make their way in the world after they (the parents) are gone.

Collective title (e.g., Amtrack, the State school system) and the consequent control exercised through a bureaucracy does not similarly link owners' incentives and owners' control. Additionally, the bureaucracy has proprietary interests in job security and career advancement.

The two different decision mechanisms yield vastly different results. Consider a simple case: 100 people individually buying shoes, versus 100 people using some collective ("democratic") process to select the one size of shoe they should wear. Whatever size of shoe wins the contest, someone's feet will hurt. Collective control over "our" children's education suffers all the defects of socialist production, plus added harm to children, the human "resource".

B. Former Superintendent of Education Paul LeMahieu made "standards" and "accountability" the twin pillars of his allaged reform platform. Neither pillar can bear the weight. Leave standards aside for now and consider "accountability".
"Accountability" rhetoric intensifies as overall system performance falls. this suggests that voters attribute to the term "accountability" a punitive implication. The person "accountable" for a disaster suffers. In reality, no bureaucrat suffers for poor system performance and insiders change the subject to parents' deficiencies whenever some outsider suggests that any insider should lose his job for system performance.

Whatever people intend by the term, "accountability" refers to some feedback mechanism through which the consequence of decisions influence future decisions. Policies which give to unhappy customers the power to take their business elsewhere provide the most effective accountability mechanism humans have yet devised. Internal accountability mechanisms fail for a reason political scientists call "regulatory capture"; insiders have a stronger incentive to distort accountability mechanisms than individual voters have to inform themselves and organize to maintain the mechanism.

For Paul LeMahieu, "accountability" meant enhanced centralization of control. The Board of Education gave him a unanimous vote of confidence scant weeks before he resigned in disgrace, after Tina Mclaughlin testified under oath at a joint House/Senate hearing that Kaniu Kinimaka-Stocksdale (allegedly LeMahieu's mistress) claimed the inside track on a $200,000 non-bid personal service contract as security against a loan she (Kinimaka-Stockdale) requested of Tina McLaughlin. LeMahieu had previously abused his authority, to discipline an administrator who protested LeMahieu's efforts to steer a special-ed personal service contract awarded through PREL to Kinimaka-Stockdale. Evidently this earlier malfeasance did not trouble our Board.

C. At the Pearl City candidates' forum, Carol Mon Lee, the other non-incumbent in my race, invited the audience to envision raising all Hawaii schools into the top 50% of schools nationally. Envision placing in the top 50% of finishers at the Indianapolis 500 in a stock Caterpillar D-9. This isn't visionary, it's delusional. The lady apparently does not recognize any connection between institutional structure and system performance.

D. Several candidates mouth the platitude of "a highly qualified teacher in every classroom", while none indicates an understanding of what this entails. This mantra morphs into advocacy of pay raises, without any consideration of the incentive that higher pay creates for incompetent current teachers to remain in the system and for incompetent prospective replacements to apply. If "highly qualified teacher" is some sort of innovation, what does that say about the current selection mechanism and about the teachers already in place? The Legislature deprived the Board of Education of authority over teacher credential requirements.

E. Representative Cynthia Thielen has no opposition in her race for the seat she currently occupies. I sent her a copy of the questionnaire I describe here, with a supplement: this quote from her webpage.
It is absolutely essential that we improve the quality of public education. It is an essential service that provides equal opportunity for all children in Hawaii to reach their full potential. Quality public education is especially important to our State economy since Hawaii is an isolated island state. We rely upon the abilities of our own residents to build and maintain a diversified, sustainable, growing economy to support our state.
I asked:
By "public education" do you mean "government-operated schools"?
Hawaii's government-operated schools yield one of the most inequal results in the US (as measured by the difference between the 90th percentile and the 10th percentile, NAEP 8th grade Math scores). Why do you assert "...public education...provides equal opportunity for all children..." when it clearly does not?
Why do you assert: "Quality public education is especially important to our State economy since Hawaii is an isolated island state"? What is the connection between State (government, generally) operation of school and insularity? 90% of students in Hong Kong and Ireland take tax subsidies to schools other than those operated by government employees. 40% of Singapore schools accept tax-subsidized tuition payments. These are all island polities.
She did not respond. Successful politicians have a blather generator, which allows them extemporaneously to fill the air with polysyllabic drivel.

So much for lofty assertions. Let's consider the sordid practice. If I am correct, the following are true:...
1) It does not take 12 years at $13,000.00 per student-year to teach a normal child to read and compute.
2) Since normal children will work much harder for the love and approval of parents than they will for strangers, homeschoolers have a large advantage over experts in early childhood education. Institutionalization is counter-indicated.
3) Most vocational training occurs more effectively on the job than in a classroom.
4) State (government, generally) supply of History or Civics instruction is a threat to democracy, just as State operation of newspapers would be (is, in totalitarian countries).

I argued earlier that the usual welfare-economic case for State subsidy of education relies on large and questionable assumptions, and the case for State operation of schools relies on even larger wild assumptions. For these reasons, I see two sordid motives behind the lofty rhetoric of "public education": the transfer of wealth from taxpayers to system insiders (children serve as window-dressing, like mannequins in a Christmas storefront display) and State-worshipful indoctrination.


Why (not) blog?

When I started this blog I made no promise to myself about posting at regular interval;s. I certainly don't have Sunshine's excuse for sparse blogging. Some writers have enough to say, but even Jay Greene blogs about movies once in a while. I take a lot of time to accumulate material. Some writers can spin joy and love out of everyday events. I do not have the skill with words of the Anchoress or the Headmistress at the Common Room, who has been following the FLDS versus Texas CPS matter, with links and insifghtful, compassionate commentary. Some writers take the easy way out, and offer hostile theater. This sells, as anyone with a television knows. Viewers will watch car chases, explosions, and gunfire. The blog equivalent is name-calling and relentless hostility: "Did you see what those idiots are up to now?" With a target like the Hawaii Department of Education, that would be easy to do, but I did not, and still do not, want to hypnotize myself into reflexive hostility. Everything we do is practice, and relentless hostility is bad practice.

The HSTA sent me a candidate questionnaire, post-marked 25-July-2008 and due 27-July-2008. I did not send it back. I'll write about it tomorrow, maybe. Maybe I'll finally finish a review of Enlow and Ealy, eds., Learning and Liberty: Milton Friedman's Voucher Idea at 50 (Cato,2006).


Pester Your Rep

How well do you know the people who ask for your vote? Politicians will often praise themselves for their ability to make tough choices. Voters can test this assertion with a simple questionnaire. I sent the following list of questions (well, it evolved from one politician to the next) to several candidates for the Hawaii Legislature.
Aloha, candidates,

1. Do you support tuition tax credits (deductable from taxable income) for K-12 education?
2. Do you support tuition tax credits (deductable from taxes owed) for K-12 education?
3. Do you support tax funded school tuition vouchers?
4. Do you support raising (to 7 or 8) the age at which the state compels attendance at school?
5. If "no" to question 4, above, do you support lowering the age at which the state compels attendance at school?
6. Do you support legislation which would mandate that the DOE recognize the GED as satisfying the HS graduation requirement, at any age?
7. If "yes" to the question 6, above, what fraction (0 < a/b < 1) of the taxpayers' $13,000/year age 5-18 education subsidy would you support allowing students who graduate (via GED) before age 18 to apply toward tuition at any VA-approved post-secondary institution in the State? ___ (specify).
8. If "yes" to the question 6, above, what fraction (0 < a/b < 1) of the taxpayers' $13,000/year age 5-18 education subsidy would you support allowing students who graduate (via GED) before age 18 to apply toward a wage subsidy at any qualified (say, has filed W-2 forms on at least three employees for at least the previous four years) private sector employer in the State? ___ (specify).
9. Hawaii taxpayers spend over $2.4 billion per year (over $13,000 per pupil). to operate the DOE. Is this enough?
10. Do you support any policy which might reduce the tax-funded dues revenue of the HSTA, UHPA, HGEA, or UPW?
11. If "yes" to question 10, above, what?______________(specify).

12. Do you support "shall issue" legislation that would require County Police Chiefs to issue concealed carry permits and so allow citizens to carry concealed handguns?
13. Do you support "shall issue" legislation that would require County Police Chiefs to issue open carry permits and so allow citizens to carry unconcealed handguns?

Thank you for your attention.

Malcolm Kirkpatrick
Note to mainlanders: Hawaii is an "agency shop" State. UHPA is the University of Hawaii Professional Assembly, the University of Hawaii faculty union, an NEA subsidiary. HSTA is the Hawaii State Teachers Association, the Hawaii K-12 NEA subsidiary. HGEA is the Hawaii Government Employees Association, an AFSCME subsidiary to which the State sends agency fees and dues which the State deducts from the paychecks of clerical staff and administrators (in Hawaii, principals must support the union). UPW is the United Public Workers, the AFSCME subsidiary to which the State sends agency fees and dues which it deducts from the salaries of school janitors and cooks.

One candidate responded with a question of her own: what organization did I represent? I answered "none", and that's the last I heard from her. One candidate answered all of these questions (wrong, from my point of view), and one answerred most of them (again, wrong from my point of view) and requested clarification on some others. She then gave no response to the clarified questions.

I tried this once before, when I left with the offices of the House and Senate Sergeants at Arms copies (one for every Senator and Representative, with SASE) of a questionnaire on school policy options. ONE member (Senator Fred Hemmings) responded. How can voters provide effective feedback given such stonewall tactics?

It makes no more sense for ordinary citizens in a mass democracy to argue about what government officials should do than it does for the swimming survivors of a mid-ocean shipwreck to argue about what sharks should eat. The government of a locality is the largest dealer in interpersonal violence in that locality (definition). What is gained by surrendering your money and your children's time to these ... people?

A propos of nothing...
Weasel got this right.