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06 March 2013

Making Public Education Compulsory AND Exclusive

In most of the U.S., education is compulsory until a student is between 16 and 18 years old. The default has become public education, though parents are alternatively allowed to enroll their children in private schools (both secular and religious) or to homeschool. After de jure segregation was struck down by the Supreme Court, many parents, both intentionally and unwittingly, have done de facto segregation by moving school districts or by exploiting the privilege of private schools. Contrary to the popular narrative about the failure of our public schools being attributable to poor teachers, the failure of public education can better be understood in terms of the flight of non-poor whites to more affluent school districts and to private schools. This has created a widening gap between students who attend failing schools and students whose parent(s) are financially and/or geographically mobile enough to attend effective schools. Private education reproduces and magnifies inequality.

The very people who could solve the problems in the public schools by contributing the most taxes to a school district and being able and knowledgeable enough to wield political clout in the local system are precisely those who are most likely to extricate themselves from those situations. They leave because they can. So, the problem is being able to keep both the political power and economic base in the public school system. An obvious solution to this is to require not just compulsory education but to compel exclusive public education. If parents are unable to pull their kids out of public schools, they will be motivated to improve the public schools.*

While the solution might be obvious, its implementation is problematic. For one, the centrality of voluntarism and individualism (read: individual liberty) in American culture guarantees strong resistance to the notion of forcing parents and students to do much of anything. (Indeed, it's surprising that public schools exist at all in this country!) In addition, though, it seems that the First Amendment would require religious exemptions for parents who prefer a religious education for their children, and savvy parents would exploit these exemptions as a way to get their kids out of public schools. I would argue that the state has a compelling interest here and that public education and religious education need not be mutually exclusive. There is nothing keeping parents from paying for their kids to attend religious school after they've spent the day at public school.

Just thinking out loud here.

* - The problem of geographic mobility is a bit trickier. It's likely impossible--and indeed for labor force reasons probably undesirable--to keep people from moving from under-performing school districts to high-performing school districts; however, there is at least the possibility for planning policy and housing discrimination enforcement to constrain these problems, making them hypothetically more manageable indirectly than the private school problem.


  1. I disagree with your argument on the basis that it relies on individuals to solve a structural problem of unequal school funding, essentially blaming the victims of inequality (individual parents and students) for that inequality's existence. A better solution is to change the inequality in funding at the state, if not federal, level. Of course, then people would think that they were wasting money on poor inner-city students that they don't think care about education, so forcing some wealthier white students to attend those schools is one way to alleviate that argument.

  2. I don't think that this is "individuals solving a structural problem" (except perhaps in the sense that patterned individual behavior en masse--even if coerced by law--is precisely what social structure is). While I would agree that state and federal control would solve funding issues (and is probably a good idea), unequal funding is not the sole cause of the reproduction of inequality in this case. Federalizing public education doesn't necessarily keep parents from pulling their kids out of public schools--along with their clout--or from moving their kids to more affluent school districts--along with their tax dollars.