It is surprising, and heartening, to hear a politician like Sen. Aaron Osmond, R-South Jordan, speak out against the compulsory education laws. While I recognize that this might just be a stunt to get people talking about education in the Legislature, I hope he is at least somewhat serious when he suggests that we should explore doing away with these laws.
I have long thought that the compulsory education laws are the seed of rottenness from which most, if not all, of the problems in our educational system spread. Now I believe this rot is spreading beyond the walls of the school and infecting society — in the form of the welfare state — in general. Perhaps this is what the "progressive" thinkers of the 19th century, such as Karl Marx, who first championed compulsory education, had in mind.
The effects of compulsion are obvious if you think about it. First, that which is forced upon an individual or a group is generally despised. Second, the compulsory nature of the laws makes the government responsible to pay for the education of those who can't afford a private school — now about 90 percent of children in grades K-12. This has some major implications. For instance, 90 percent of children grow up believing that the government is a provider, when in fact it can only give to one what it has taken from another. Also, since the government pays, it also must control — since it would be irresponsible to give taxpayer money to an entity beyond its control. This, in turn, makes the government the arbitrator of truth — since presumably the schools are not teaching falsehoods. Another sad truth is that those who receive something for free generally do not appreciate it as much as those who have to pay for it with sweat and treasure.
A third ill effect is the declining discipline in schools. Since a student cannot really be expelled from the system (just moved to a different public school), there is no real deterrent for bad behavior on the part of either the student or the parents. Imagine the school system functioning as it currently does, but without compulsory attendance. Would students be more motivated to keep up with their studies? Would responsible parents be more likely to be sure their sons and daughters stay in school and keep learning? Would those parents we call irresponsible, but who may simply be overwhelmed, be more motivated to help, or seek help for, their struggling children, if only to avoid the financial consequences of not being able to send them off to school each day? I think the answer to each of these questions is "Yes."
I want to be clear that I am totally in favor of universal education. But, as any English teacher will tell you, "universal" and "compulsory" are not synonyms.
Jonathan Whitney is the father of seven daughters, the last three of which have been homeschooled.