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  • Laurence M. Vance

Three Libertarian Principles for Education

February 22, 2021

Originally published by the Future of Freedom Foundation

Although the presidency and both Houses of Congress are now controlled by Democrats, some conservatives still think that they can have some influence on the federal government’s education polices.

A case in point is a new report by Michael Q. McShane of the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), “Where Conservatives Should Lead on Federal Education Policy in 2021.” McShane is an adjunct fellow in education policy studies at AEI and director of education policy at the Show-Me Institute, where he studies and writes about K–12 education policy, including private and religious schools and the politics of education.

His key points are:

  • Conservatives have an opportunity to play a productive role in federal education policymaking. They have to do more than just say no.

  • Early childhood education policy should center on family and work to make family life in America easier.

  • Federal K–12 policy should focus on deregulating existing programs and broadening their eligibility to allow new and different providers to access federal funds.

  • Higher education policy should diminish the power of existing gatekeepers and open the field for more innovation, with new means of ensuring that dollars are spent well.

McShane has also joined with Frederick M. Hess, a resident scholar and the director of Education Policy Studies at AEI, where he works on K–12 and higher education issues, in writing an op-ed titled “Three Conservative Principles for Education.”

McShane and Hess mention an AEI collection of more than two dozen education proposals called “The Next Conservative Education Agenda.” This includes proposals like

  • Rethink the School Day and Year

  • A Three-year Bachelor’s Degree

  • Three Perspective Shifts to Advance Choice

  • Third-Party Credentialing for Higher Education

  • Two Steps to Restoring School Safety

  • A Constitutional Right to a High-Quality Public Education

But as McShane and Hess point out: “These varied ideas have much to recommend them but are all, quite intentionally, policies—not principles. As we set forth on a new decade, in a time of massive social and political disruption, it’s worth considering what principles ought to undergird conservative policy, in 2021 and beyond. Here, we offer three:

First, the family is the foundation. We understand that parents know their children better and care for them more than any bureaucrat, and that’s why we should fight to put parents in the driver’s seat when it comes to choosing the best options for child care, preschool and K-12 education. Second, schools are formative, not performative, institutions. Schools are supposed to be formative institutions. They’re supposed to shape students into young adults who can reason, think and grow into responsible citizens. Teachers and professors are to serve as mentors, role models and sources of insight and wisdom, moderating the hubristic zeal of young people. Third, conservatives should be confident pluralists. We should allow parents and educators in varied situations and different communities to create the schools that best meet the needs of their children. Public dollars for education should equitably support a wide array of options.

The authors then ask the questions: “Can Washington help promote these principles? Should it?”

Their answer is that the federal government “can, and it must, in a limited way—mostly by expanding eligibility for existing federal programs and loosening the regulatory vise governing the use of those funds.”

They conclude: “As conservatives look to help hard-hit families recover from the dislocations of COVID-19 and gear up for the policy debates of the Biden era, we need to think about what we offer when it comes to schools and schooling. A tough-minded examination of our core principles is a good place to start.”

I think a better place to start would be a tough-minded examination of the libertarian core principles of education. As a counter to McShane’s and Hess’s “Three Conservative Principles for Education,” here are three libertarian principles for education.

1. The federal government should have absolutely nothing to do with education. Nowhere does the Constitution authorize the federal government to have anything to do with education. What James Madison wrote in Federalist No. 45 is still applicable today:

The powers delegated by the proposed Constitution to the Federal Government, are few and defined. Those which are to remain in the State Governments are numerous and indefinite. The former will be exercised principally on external objects, as war, peace, negotiation, and foreign commerce; with which last the power of taxation will for the most part be connected. The powers reserved to the several States will extend to all the objects, which, in the ordinary course of affairs, concern the lives, liberties and properties of the people; and the internal order, improvement, and prosperity of the State.

This means not only no Department of Education, but no Higher Education Act, no Elementary and Secondary Education Act, no bilingual-education mandates, no math and science initiatives, no Title IX mandates, no school accreditation, no anti-discrimination policies, no standardized-testing requirements, no Common Core standards, no Race to the Top funds, no No Child Left Behind Act, no desegregation orders, and no special-education mandates.

2. All education should be private education. Every state has a provision in its constitution for the operation of K-12 schools, colleges, and universities. Therefore, if there are to be any public schools; that is, government schools, they should be limited to state-government schools, fully staffed and supervised by state governments. Although this is preferable to the federal government being involved in education, it is still not ideal. It is an illegitimate purpose of government to establish public schools or provide educational services to anyone. Education is a service that should be provided on the free market by private entities. There is nothing inherently unique about education which necessitates that the government provide it.

3. Education should not be funded by the state. Neither the federal nor the state governments should fund education in any way, even if they are not involved in the operation or regulation of schools. This means no vouchers, no charter schools, no school breakfast and lunch programs, no Pell Grants, no student loans, no research grants to colleges, no scholarships, and no Head Start funding. Education is not a constitutional right. It is the responsibility of parents to educate their children. No American should be forced to pay for the education of any other American or their children.

So, to answer the questions posed by McShane and Hess, whether Washington could help promote conservative principles of education is irrelevant because Washington shouldn’t even be trying.

Category: Education

This post was written by:Laurence M. Vance

Laurence M. Vance is a columnist and policy advisor for the Future of Freedom Foundation, an associated scholar of the Ludwig von Mises Institute, and a columnist, blogger, and book reviewer at He is the author of Gun Control and the Second Amendment, The War on Drugs Is a War on Freedom, and War, Empire and the Military: Essays on the Follies of War and U.S. Foreign Policy. His newest books are Free Trade or Protectionism? and The Free Society. Visit his website: Send him e-mail.

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