EDUCATION and Libertarians

 Busing    Church and State No Child Left Behind


            There has been a lot of debate recently about school vouchers and about some “libertarian” proposals to abolish public funding of schools and allow parents to be solely responsible for educating their own children.

            The smooth reason offered for school vouchers is that public schools in many urban jurisdictions have failed, and that even low-income parents will benefit from being allowed to use government vouchers to send their kids to private or even parochial schools.  The liberal counter is that it is irresponsible to take money from school systems, but rather that more needs to be invested in them. The conservative argument is that if a private school can do a better job in educating children in the basics, it makes sense for government to outsource to private sources sometimes and offer this option to parents. Often this is the case.

            But the practical incentive for many taxpayers is resentment of being expected to subsidize through tax money extracurricular or particularly religious or diversity education programs to which they may have personal objection.

            Another argument is that publicly-funded education must focus only on the basic skills: English, math, science, civics, foreign languages. Indeed, a well-founded objection to “Profiles of Learning” education programs in Minnesota and similar programs in other states may be the dilution of academic standards. If students may replace some traditional exams and term papers with more nebulous community-related “assignments,” weaker students may be able to “hide.”  Related to this is the controversy over whether all ethnic minorities should be forced to learn all their subjects in standard English (rather than Spanish or even “Ebonics,” which may, despite its unusual time sense and loose constructs have more validity as a language than most commentators admit). One could suggest that in some communities all students should become proficient in both English and the other language (Spanish, or, in Quebec, French). There have also been charges that Profiles-of-Learning systems tend to keep some students tracked to an “assigned station in life,” much as used to be the case in Europe.  

            There is some subtlety to this.  English courses include literature, and minorities may rightly complain about courses stilted towards white, Christian male authors.  The interpretation of history, especially such subjects as slavery, segregation, the Holocaust, and even Stonewall must be sensitive to the different points of view and the horrors visited upon racial or religious minorities in the past by a white, “Christian” majority—a process that helps explain the adversarialism of much of today’s politics.

            I would suggest, however, that no taxpayer (whether a parent or a person without children) should be required to subsidize behavior-oriented courses to which he or she objects.  Therefore, funding on courses on sexual education (including education for gay teenagers) should be voluntary and come from private organizations.

            But then, public funds should not go to religious instruction, either, a danger inherent in “faith based initiatives” in education under President Bush, unless there are strict audits. Another danger is that funds may go to institutions that have legal but objectionable employment practices (as to a religious school that excludes gays and lesbians as teachers, even for secular subjects.)

            I have never objected “philosophically” to paying (indirectly, at least) real estate taxes to support public schools, since I benefited from them myself, even though I am childless.


A note about forced busing:[1]


In the 1960’s—during my own college, grad school and Army years—there was a massive national effort to restore some semblance of racial balance in the nation’s public school, especially in the South, after the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision, with court-supervised busing. Sometimes busing resulted in extremely long commutes for students. The racial balance philosophy seems in part derived from the Court’s refutation of the earlier “separate but equal” notion, which however, had been used to justify outright segregation (indeed recalling the outrageous rhetoric of George Wallace and Orval Faubus in the late1950’s), not “simply” the de facto segregation of “neighborhood schools”; yet the philosophy does seem, in many “liberal” legal minds, suggest that some social justice remedies still must (at least for “practical” reasons) deal with people in groups before dealing with them as individuals. (I remember an informal debate about this in 1998 on an Outwoods hike with a civil rights attorney—because this has such an important application in gay issues.)  In some cases, busing (or at least desegregation) resulted in at least temporary lowering of academic standards in previous “white” schools. Busing continues today (as with a recent Supreme Court decision retaining it in North Carolina) in some areas. But in many jurisdictions (as in Minnesota) there is open enrollment, in which students must qualify to enter fast track magnet or charter schools. See also the note about the KIPP public schools, note 82 at


One can take the collective arguments for justice through racial balance and affirmative action further. After all, there is a history of systematic discrimination and exclusion of blacks from society, and the state was a party to this—at one time through slavery (Dred Scott—Scott v. Sandford), then Jim Crow laws, segregation, and particularly the public school system.  Other groups, such as the Jews, have similarly been victims in other parts of the world. So one is left with the idea that for gays, even of one believes in collective reparative remedies, the arguments must be much more subtle when dealing with the use of public funds for classroom agenda and even meeting places for groups like the Boy Scouts.   


In 1992, the Supreme Court ruled that neighborhood schools are sometimes acceptable and that forced busing is not always required.  Freeman v. Pitts (1992). If the school district makes a good faith attempt at desegregation and resegregation occurs by private choice, the result is not unnecessarily an unconstitutional violation of equal protection, or Brown v. Board of Education (“all deliberate speed”).


For related discussion of affirmative action, see


A note about church and state


On January 29, 2001 President George W. Bush , by his signature on a pair of executive orders, h created a White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives - with counterpart offices in five Cabinet-level departments. The First Amendment, of course, has many mansions, one of the most delicate concerning the extent to which government may incidentally involve itself in religious activities for general public good. 


I recognize the seriousness of the principles involved, even if I appreciated the small amount of Bible reading in public school in the 1950s when I was in grade school (I loved the crinkling sound of Bible pages) and never questioned prayers before assemblies!  I’ve never been one to oppose, say, nativity scenes at Christmas in public spaces. 


Bush insists that grants to religious charities will be audited so that they may not use federal money for religious instruction. In a practical way, this means that religious groups must set up separate corporations, a practice often followed today.  In Do Ask Do Tell I give an account of the way I was “greeted” by Catholic Charities in Dallas regarding the possible sponsorship of a Cuban refugee in 1980. I would be concerned that inevitably federal funds will go to organizations that discriminate in hiring, as with the situation with the Kentucky Baptist Home for Children which fired an open lesbian. 


No Child Left Behind Law


President Bush advocated and got passed the “No Child Left Behind Law” which adds specific federal accountabilities for schools’ academic performance in basic subjects like reading and mathematics, reforms actually started in the Clinton years. Schools, especially in poorer areas, have had to drop extracurricular activities and electives to focus on basics. Schools must also offer parents the opportunity to transfer to better performing schools. Designations of affected schools include “Title I” and “Targeted Assistance.”  The law reminds us that affluent people tend to have fewer children than poor people. The NCLB was covered in the article “’No Child’ Law Leaves Schools’ Old Ways Behind,” by Michael Dobbs, The Washington Post, April 22, 2004. Here is the basic Department of Education reference.


“No Child Left Behind” also increases licensing and certification requirements for teachers and paraprofessional school employees in some cases, including long term substitute teachers. English and math must be taught by highly qualified teachers (both as to subject matter and grade level). Disadvantaged students (whether from medical handicap, language impairment, non-English speaking, poverty, or a number of problems like dyslexia, hyperactivity or emotional disorders) must, in some cases, have the help of qualified special education teachers in their various subject-oriented classrooms. Certification may include passing Educational Testing Service Praxis I and II tests. (Many localities and states allow substitutes to teach without teaching licenses.) This observation may be important as persons displaced from the workplace (especially information technology) or retiring may be attracted to teaching, a profession that cannot be off-shored and that offers the psychological rewards and obligations of public service. Career-switching programs are available and local universities, but workers may not be willing to invest in them without assurance that sufficient budget for their teaching jobs will be available when they graduate. More many people, teaching (below the college level) changes the emphasis from content alone to working with people (minors) and being responsible for them. So teaching could be viewed as a kind of “national service” commitment, if it were so structured, and that would go beyond what we normally think of as “a job.”  Teaching in social studies, English, and even health and physical education, and maybe even biology can involve the challenge of handling controversial subjects about which some students will come from cultural backgrounds with very fixed positions (often founded on religion).  This can present real dilemmas about fairness and objectivity (reconciling to the wishes of parents) when talking about minorities, religion, or gay issues. Persons who have already been publicly controversial in previous employment or published writings might be unsuitable for a commitment to full time teaching below college level in public schools; this is a problem similar to what exists and has been growing for journalists; for more see this reference.  Full time teachers, in many districts, must be willing to teach some sections of disadvantaged or education-impaired students. Up through high school, public school districts must offer tracks for severely disabled and mentally retarded students, and sometimes other teachers (and substitutes) may be invited or expected to participate in some of the associated tasks (and these can include custodial tasks[2] or other athletic tasks like swimming). But the availability of private schools and vouchers can also fit into a solution for expanding education to the disadvantaged.


Another aspect of NCLB (in conjunction with the Individuals With Disabilities Education Act[3]) is the notion of “disaggregation,” a concept that sounds like a liberal notion related to affirmative action. Here it refers to measuring a school’s performance with respect to specific groups of students who may have, for a reason specific to the group, a learning disadvantage.[4] Students must pass standardized (“Standards of Learning” or SOL) tests (mostly multiple choice) at various grade levels in several core subjects to graduate into grade levels and from high school—in some cases poor test takers have not been able to graduate from high school because of poor test taking skills. There have been scattered reports of teacher-associated cheating since teachers are rated on how well their students, including disadvantaged students, do.[5]  It does seem that in social studies, for example, these tests emphasize remembering facts. In reading, however, they are graded as to the ability to interpret and “connect dots” of meaning in sample sections. I can recall tests like that in my own elementary school in the 1950s, in “My Weekly Reader”: a test of 60 muliple questions (like “The Best Title for this Story Is”)  which, the first time, most third graders could not pass.


American Idol winner (technically runnerup) Clay Aiken has taught special education (for autisim) and is participating his own  foundation,  See also Diane Austin’s commentary “On Autism and Clay Aiken,” June 4, 2004, at  For a review of his 2004 Random House book Learning to Sing: Hearing the Music in your Life go to


Private initiatives implemented in public schools, following libertarian philosophy, started by Dave Levin and Mike Feinberg can provide new models for improving educational performance and test score performance of low-income children, as with KIPP, the Knowledge is Power Program, which is being implemented in more urban schools around the country. The programs feature long school days, intensive drill on the basics, strict contracts for students and teachers who must be “on call” at all times for students, and have achieved impressive results with students from poor neighborhoods. They have also caused controversy when first introduced. Jay Matthews provides a Washington Post story “School of Hard Choices: In the KIPP Academy Program, It’s Motivation That’s Fundamental” on Aug. 24, 2004. KIPP’s web reference is  This was also mentioned in footnote 82 at   Education of low income or disadvantaged children requires an incredible degree of personal and emotion commitment from teachers, and many persons would not be willing to provide such dedication to others’ children. Discipline problems in schools often reflect that some of these children or teens believe that our modernist competitive world (which they may still experience as racist) has little to offer them. Gay-bashing in schools, which leads to suicides, is a different problem, and should be handled first by a “zero tolerance” for bullying, which too few schools implement.


In many states or metropolitan areas, substitute teaching provides an attractive opportunity for flexible interim employment at a reasonable hourly rate, though usually without benefits; it provides opportunities for both retired people and new college graduates stepping towards new careers, and especially to artists, actors, writers or musicians who often need other income and who can provide interesting perspectives. Often a teaching license or certification tests is not required. In some school districts with weaker budgets and teacher layoffs, however, only certified teachers are used. Substitute teachers may be surprised to find that the job, even in high school, tends to emphasize the ability to work with or supervise non-adult or non-intact people rather than just deal with academic subject matter. Often the requirements are arcane, such as letters of reference (corporate employers usually don’t give those any more for legal liability reasons), and a tuberculosis certificate (since TB is extremely hard to transmit in most situations, although maybe not to those with compromised immune systems), and fingerprint check.  I have wondered if substitutes should be required to have first-aid training and CPR certification, as some school districts require of regular teachers[6]. (Also one should know the Heimlich Maneuver.) Ironically the first episode of Smallville in 2001 featured a scene where the teenage Clark demonstrates CPR on Lex after the bridge accident, with correct technique. Even other skills (water safety or swimming or rescue) could come into play in rare assignments, like with special education. 


On January 22, 2005 Norman Mailer provided Parade Magazine with a “One Idea” op-ed: “Our young people are America’s future: Why Do We Make It So Hard For Them to Learn?” Mailer attacks television commercials as a core problem, and suggests with a bald face: “If we want to have the best of all possible worlds, we had better recognize that we cannot have all worlds. I believe that television commercials have to go. Let us pay for what we enjoy on television rather than pass the spiritual cost on to our children our their children.”  Other educators have suggested that fast-moving images on television or any video or film entertainment, when viewed by toddlers less than two years old, can set them up for attention deficit disorder as young adolescents. Mailer thanks that solid narrative television is OK, and the hard come from the constant interruption by commercials, especially on the major networks. Movies and computer websites seem less of a problem for him, although it is clear that children also need the concentration that comes from extended reading of physical books. I attended junior high school and high school from 1955-1961 and I do not recall that television provided a big distraction, although teachers, especially in junior high, implored “read, don’t watch television!”  I had to get through three years of English with lots of “good” books (Silas Marner, The Scarlet Letter, etc) and Shakespeare plays (Julius Caesar, Hamlet, Macbeth – but the comedies are really harder to understand!), and a year of history and a year of government in a good high school (Washington-Lee in Arlington, VA, at the time one of the top ten high schools in the nation).  I would add another element to Mailer’s spin: many teens or pre-teens with moderate learning problems resent being expected to perform in academic areas (especially mathematics) that they feel they are not good at and that will embarrass them. This may lead them to manipulate their teachers or other students with whom they have trouble competing, or at least to develop behavioral schemes that attempt to evade having to perform in these subjects. This is rather like my resenting as a teen being expected to perform in PE or shop (and I kind of got off the hook on these, and maybe I shouldn’t have). The open, high-tech society that we have seems to help the best students (often from upper middle class homes) but make the average and particularly language-impaired students even weaker. Proficiency in language early is probably necessary for proficiency in math, and probably explains how the very best students (for example child and teenage actors in the movies) are so precocious. (I’ve noticed consistently that students who perform publicly—whether music, theater, or even in film—are often much more mature socially and often have much better verbal skills than their peers.) On the other land, less well-off families and their children may perceive that the better off students are making it without “paying their dues” first. This may add to the resentment that some students feel when being expected to master subjects that they perceived is irrelevant to the lives that they experience. I take up the “pay your dues” issue at this link.


I notice that there is more “pressure” to encourage individuals to participate in mentoring children. Mentoring is a more demanding experience than is tutoring in a specific academic subject. This invitation may be extended to the childless (and singles and gays) but that would be controversial. There is more of a sense today that one should give others personal attention than there was perhaps ten years ago. Yahoo has promoted January (2005) as National Mentoring Month. Mentoring sites talk about “Big Brothers” and “Big Sisters” with (your) “Little.” The reader can visit


(I took a workplace course in CPR at Chilton in 1983, and a second one for a gay outdoor group in 1991. It seems now that the typical certification course takes around 4-5 hours, or around 7-8 hours if AED (automated external defibrillators) is included.[7]) 



ãCopyright 1997, 2004, 2005 by Bill Boushka  


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[1] Sometimes spelled bussing

[2] See the conflict of interest referemce point 9

[4] William Raspberry. “Giving ‘No Child’ a Chance,” The Washington Post, June 7, 2004, p. A23.

[5] Business Week, July 5, 2004, “A Spate of Cheating—by Teachers. No Child Left Behind links test results to school funding. Is that a recipe for deceit?”