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Tuesday, August 24, 2004

The Purpose of Schools

Aric, the Raging Squirrel, posted about Charter Schools a couple of days ago. I have been thinking about a making some sort of response since then, but our differences on this issue are fairly small and not really worth going over (even if he is a pinko commie). Here is one line that got me thinking though:

Secondly, while the source of Charter School funding is public, many of the charter schools are set up by private organizations, potentially causing a conflict if the views espoused by the organization conflict with those of the State.
Now I think Aric made a poor choice here in using the word views, I think he meant purposes. Even if he did not, that brings up an interesting question to me. What exactly are the legitimate purposes that government has in providing public education? I will attempt to answer that question from my quasi-libertarian free market promoting perspective. There may well be other legitmate purposes than those I mention here, and doubtless there are many purposes that some people think are legitimate which I do not, but here is my off the cuff thoughts on this. I use the generic term government rather than specify national, state, or local governments. Exacty what the resposibilities and powers of each of these levels should be is a seperate debate. 1) Civics: It is certainly in our interest as a democracy to ensure that our citizens know the mechanics of self government as well as a general understanding of the history of our nation and it's founding principles. The ability to gather and evaluate knowledge is also desirable and requires certain bedrock skills. Because it is in all of our interest, as the least educated vote counts as much as the most educated vote, this seems to be a very legitimate reason for government to be providing public education for all. One tricky point here is that government should not be providing political indoctrination, and the line between civics and partisanship can be very blurry. This includes both the manner in which subjects are taught as well as which subjects are covered. It is probably impossible to please everyone, all the time on this point, and majority rule here seems very inappropriate (I don't think that anyone would be comfortable with the idea that elections give a mandate to indoctrinate children in a certain direction) it seems that the government should on the one hand strive to be moderate and on the other allow multiple choices of education to reflect different values. 2) Economic Opportunity: There are in my view two ways to justify the government having a legitimate interest in developing the economic opportunity of it's citizens. The first, is that every good producer increases the economy as a whole and thus benefits all (the converse that non-producers produce costs to all is also true, although for legitimacy this depends on the idea that social programs are also legitmate.) Since the better everyone does economically, the better I am likely to do as well public, and hence government, support of education seems desirable. To a large degree the justification for this hinges on the fact that we are talking about minors who have no resources in and of themselves and lack the capacity to make their own decisions. This is also related to my second justification for government support of education on the basis of economic opportunity. We have as one of our founding principals that all people are created equal. Now, manifestly we are not all born with the same economic resources availible to us, and recieving a good education is correlated with both the resources availible to the child and the resources the child will be able to attain later in life. Although the phrase 'its for the children' makes me reflexively look to my liberties, in this case a strong justification can be made for a partial reallocation of resources from the wealthy to the poor on behalf of those who, through no fault of their own are born with less resources. This does need to be carefully balanced so that the ability of parents to give their children opportunities they didn't have is not taken as this is a powerful motivator for economic activity and independence and family need to be valued. That being said, to a certain extent government leveling of the playing field is desirable here. More pure libertarians would argue that though the moral responsibility of those with more to help those, particularly children, with less does exist that does not translate into the right of the government to use force to madate the fulfilling of this responsibility. I have a certain sympathy for this arguement but given both the moral and the neighborhood effects of educated citizens on the general economic prosperity of the nation I find that the balance lies in favor of government sponsored education. It is interesting to me that, in my opinion, the case is much stronger for the civics arguement than the equality of opportunity arguement. I would also say that on the whole, public education is better at producing people who are able to compete economically (or at least take the next steps i.e. college) than it is people who have a good understanding of civics and the mechanisms of government. It is also interesting that when people are complaining about public education they are almost always complaining about it's failure to provide economic opportunity, rather than produce citizens who understand their role in a democracy.


Blogger Aric said...

Good post Dave. I think you did a fine job in breaking down the two major requirements of education.

-- Aric

8/24/2004 02:28:00 PM  
Blogger Dave Justus said...

We have got to stop agreeing Aric, or you are going to have to give up any pretensions of being a Commie Pinko Democrat or I am going to have to admit to not being a Conservative Republican Brown Shirt.

8/24/2004 03:08:00 PM  

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