Shepard: Decoupling schooling from the State

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by Mark Shepard, for Renew America

On July 27, I went to a forum hosted by Americans for Prosperity, which focused on fixing the deep problems in K-12 schooling. I had been asked to come and present my perspective by the organizer of the event, even though he knew I opposed one of the three proposals his organization was supporting. I very much appreciate his desire to allow consideration of a counter-perspective. Sound ideas come from encouraging open challenge and debate, especially from those who truly want to build a stronger society. Below are my remarks, with some clarifying changes:

I want to start by thanking the members of Virginia Education Opportunity Alliance (VEOA) for seeking citizen input for this difficult problem. We are here tonight because, as a recent poll indicates, 71% of Americans recognize there are deep problems with the current state-funded model. My hope is that we address this in a way that generations to come will benefit.

If I was to frame the education paradigm I have come to embrace in a simple statement, it would be: Decoupling schooling from the state. While this is a foreign concept in our time, it is neither foreign to our nation, nor to Virginia.

Mark Shepard

There was a time when public schools were locally funded and locally controlled. The Bible was actually the primary textbook in America’s earliest schools. The focus was teaching students the tools for discovering and living life—not using students for social experiments. The shift to where we are today was no accident, and that must be understood for us to create a true and lasting solution.

First, you cannot have a government by the people when the government shapes the thinking of the people. That was the point of the First Amendment that barred Congress from making laws that would control religion.

Just as with religion, schooling shapes the thinking. Hitler, Stalin, and Mao understood that well. In America in the 1930s, John Dewey and his associates from the Marxist Frankfurt School saw the great opportunity the public school system afforded for pushing an ideology. They therefore created a teaching college model that they propagated throughout our universities, a model that has trained almost all K-12 teachers.

If the framers of our Constitution could have foreseen what we are seeing today, I cannot imagine them not protecting America’s schools, along with religion, in the First Amendment.

Second, we need to recognize that whoever pays for schooling controls the ideas and method of schooling, just like anything else in life. Those paying the grocery bill determine the menu. The more schools the state itself funds, the less real education choice or freedom we Americans will have. Even if a government education policy starts out with just a few strings, the opportunity for control will most certainly attract those who want to expand control.

An example of this is Sweden (similar examples include Canada, Australia, and South Africa). The following facts were taken from an April 2023 article by Alex Newman of the New American:

In 1992, after a couple years of clamoring for choice, Sweden passed universal school choice. Just like what is happening in Virginia today, Sweden was pushing ideas like “money following the child” and “creating healthy competition.” Even the American conservative-leaning Heritage think tank promoted the model.

But then two decades later, it all came crashing down (since public money requires accountability):

  • Private schools were ordered to teach radical government curriculum, including gender confusion.
  • All schools had to participate in national testing, to ensure all schools taught what the government wanted taught.
  • Even Christian private schools were ordered to stop all Bible reading and prayer during school hours. (That is very similar to what happened here in the U.S. in what were once locally controlled public schools. So, don’t imagine the same thing would never happen here, because it already has done so!)
  • Homeschooling was completely banned.

All genuine and meaningful “choice” was abolished in one fell swoop. The alleged effort to offer alternatives to government schools ended up turning all schools into government schools.

You might say, “That could not happen here.” But I will remind you that just a couple years ago, it was the Virginia legislature that made it so Virginians are subject to California emissions laws. That is akin to taxation without representation. So, don’t think for a moment that that same legislature would not love to be able to mandate what is taught to every child in Virginia.

Another way to know what would happen here is to just look at how state funding has impacted what is taught in our public schools, which once revered the Bible and held prayer times. There is only one reason state mandates are not as heavy on private schools and that is because their funding is not from the state, so the state is greatly limited in how much it can control them. If we really want different options, we cannot have a singular funding source.

That brings me to my third point, which is that the more opportunity there is for government control, the more attractive such control becomes to the far left. It was the framework for state influence over the public school system that motivated John Dewey and his Frankfurt School colleagues to use the education system to push their Marxist ideology. And we know all too well that Virginia is very vulnerable to the far left. From a purely political point of view, the last thing any elected Republican should do is provide an even greater incentive to attract more far-left money into Virginia politics.

So, not only would enacting Virginia’s proposed ESA (“Education Savings Account”) law ultimately hurt real school choice, it would be political suicide for Republicans. I learned this first-hand from serving two terms in the Vermont State Senate, which had a far-left super majority. That was not always the case. Once upon a time, Vermont was actually the most Republican state in the nation. For 100 years, no Democrat got elected!

George Soros and other wealthy socialist-leaning people invested in Vermont because they saw opportunity, and now far-left Democrats completely control public policy. Sure, Vermont has a “Republican” governor (a senate colleague of mine), but he leans left and the Democrats have such a super-majority they can override anything he might veto. The once live-and-let-live state is now one of the most socialist-leaning states in the nation. They are actively now pushing gun control, something that was unthinkable to most state residents even when I served because, while Vermont was one of the least restrictive states regarding gun laws, it also enjoyed one of the lowest gun violence records. So, I ask Republican legislators to not sell Virginia down the same drain by adding anything that those who live to control others could use to gain more power. Rather, work to pull the state out of sectors where it does not belong, so Virginians can interact freely with one another.

All government powers are a product for sale to those who yearn for power, and they will pay great sums of money to buy it. The only way to limit the selling of government power is to not allow government to have such power to sell. That is the only real campaign finance reform.

As for the three policies currently being presented in Virginia, both parental tax credits and the Education Improvement Scholarships (EISTC) keep money out of the state education budget, thus help move toward decoupling and increase choice. By contrast, Education Savings Accounts (ESAs, or vouchers), if passed as proposed, would be funding private schools from the state education budget, thus increasing the coupling of schooling to the state, Even if in the short term more schools are created, in the long run, once the state increases its mandate, real choice will evaporate.

We have been almost a century creating this mess; it will take hard work and a fundamental paradigm shift to get out of it. I believe that paradigm shift is to move away from state-funding/control and toward parents and churches, just as God’s word instructs. Education is discipleship.

I very much appreciate the honesty from the VEOA team regarding the limits on what can get passed and the fact that any future legislature has full freedom to pass any mandates on what prior legislatures create. The statement by one spokesman regarding the federal government’s potential outlawing of homeschooling as one reason we need the ESA law seemed very fatalistic and unrealistic. If anything, that possibility proves we need to pull government out of education, not increase its reach into the private sector.

We can choose to resign ourselves to what people with government power can and will do, or we can do what our nation’s founders did in 1776, when they came to terms with the fact that no good solution would come from King George, and take the responsibility of K-12 schooling back upon ourselves as parents and churches and work toward a free-market solution. How wonderful it would be some day to discover that there were no students left for the government schools because it became unthinkable for parents and churches to give their children to the state to train up and disciple.

Mark Shepard served two terms in the Vermont Senate (2003-2006) and ran for Congress in the 2006 Republican Primary. 

Categories: Commentary, Education

12 replies »

  1. Thank you Mr. Shepard for writing this article. I would like to add additional details about John Dewey and his continued relevance today. Dewey’s ideology is tied to the United Nations 21st Century learning. I have been researching this shift on education, which is tied to the United Nations/World Economic Forum agenda and the new Environmental, Social, and Governmence (ESG) corporate financial scoring model. The Social scoring component of ESG is based on compliance with diversity, equity and inclusion relaive to corporate compliance with the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals. I noticed that most ESG participating organizations state in their website that they support the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights, which broadly defines equality in the socialist convention or social contract. The UN refers to America’s definition of equality as a laisser-fair doctrine. One organization called School Outfitters actually references John Dewey on their website relaive to student centered learning associated with 21st Century learning. Its website states that advances like automation, big data, and AI are decreasing the need to do manual tasks and people to act as knowledge keepers. Dewey believed students needed to be given something to do, not something to learn, learning comes from going. They intend to transition from reading, writing and arithmetic, to SEL skills like creativity, creative thinking, collaboration and communication. These are the new skills children will be evaluated on. It is no accident that our government run schools implemented SEL and equity programs so aggressively. This was by design and influenced by NGOs like UNESCO (United Nations Educational and Cultural Organization Funded by the World Bank.

    You can’t have global equity and a global employment pool of people without a new scoring metric and criteria. The UN data on educational outcomes in poor and third world countries conclude that students reading comprehension is poor, which means these demographics can’t compete in the new global economy envisioned by the United Nations, WEF and their stakeholders.

  2. Thank you Mr. Shepard and Ms. Stone for both truthfulness and common sense knowledge. Because I Iived in Vermont when the State got involved in our school funding the first step they did was to introduce Special Education which they first funded. Stating that all children were not given fair treatment in education, which was false. This led to more children being put in Spec. Ed. that didn’t need to be there, by the teachers and state run program, uping the cash flow. Then it came to pass the state said kids with real disabilities needed to be put into public schools which led to hiring a person to be with that child until they were of age but of course with the cost of education climbing the state lay the bulk of the cost on the towns to cover. Which put most small towns into a bind trying to fund this mess that started with the state. Next the state decided it would improve educational funding to set up districts for all towns which we have now. Not run by the people but by the state, supervisory unions and teachers unions. I don’t think that anyone with eyes and a brain can say that our educational system is better today than it was before the state got involved.

    Just for the people that think I don’t know what I am talking about, I had a meeting with my daughters teacher who wanted to give her special help, in the third grade, I believe, because she wasn’t forming her letters at a consistent level when she wrote and she didn’t hold her shears right to cut a straight line. I told her No, she would improve with practice, she did. I worked in a high school for about 10 years and during that time there were two children that had severe disabilities one was in a wheelchair and couldn’t talk and needed a special changing table put in to accommodate her. The other was violent, couldn’t talk and also had problems with toiletries. Both had a hired person to be with them all the time. Today our schools are run by people who do not have a connection with the individual towns or its people. YES THE STATE NEEDS TO GET OUT OF OUR SCHOOLS!

  3. “I very much appreciate his desire to allow consideration of a counter-perspective. Sound ideas come from encouraging open challenge and debate, especially from those who truly want to build a stronger society.”

    Just like here, minus all the pejoratives, name-calling and outrageous, unsubstantiated insinuations …….

    • Again you have no idea what you are talking about and resourt to name calling. I read everyone’s comments and wrote my own, which is based on documented facts. No one resorted to name calling except you. I invite you to read Social Justice in an Open World, The Role of the United Nations, 2006, as some of the information I provided was taken from this document. Social Justice is a United Nations agenda and an outcome of forced redistributive policies, aka equity. Next you can read World Economic Forum: The new Vision For Education, which discusses transformation for a 21st century education by using SEL to subvert the culture of nations with financing from the World Bank. Of course, you can also look at the name of the school supply company or you could research ESG and the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals. This information is available to the public.

  4. The big problem in Vermont is that schools, especially in rural areas with a limited tax base could not be run without Federal and State aid. Education costs money. Who will pay for it?

    Which bible should be taught in Vermont schools? What about the separation of church and state which the basis of our form of government?

    What standards should be set in place so that all students receive a quality education and how should those standards be measured and enforced?

    What I thought would be an enlightening article highlighting SOLUTIONS turns out to be just more of the same old hyped-up finger-pointing c$ap.

    Dewy? HOOEY!! SIGH

    • JD, you clearly don’t understand Vermont’s education system. Specifically, you either ignore or are not aware of the 1997 Brigham, et al vs. State of Vermont case and its so-called shared responsibility for funding education. Please do the research.

      That being said, your question as to..:

      “What standards should be set in place so that all students receive a quality education and how should those standards be measured and enforced?”

      … is the sticky wicket.

      As a parent whose children went through Vermont’s public school system, whose children received a taxpayer funded voucher to attend an independent school of our choice, as a former school board member and Workforce Investment Board member (liaison between employers and our schools), and having participated in more roundtable discussions on this matter than I care to count, I must say that you continue to miss the point. Which is:

      What do we do when the government controls all school funding and governance?

      Duck and cover????

  5. Great conversation!

    Consider one correction: Vermont’s Agency of Education (previously the Dept. of Ed.) didn’t initiate Special Education. So-called SPED programs were local to certain States decades before the 1990 federally mandated Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) and its predecessors were passed. Readers can learn more about the history of SPED from the Noah Webster Educational Foundation.

    As I’ve previously commented, I’ve been a strong advocate for School Choice for more than 30 years. But there’s the Catch 22 we’ve been discussing. Does taxpayer funding necessarily translate into government regulation. According to the SCOTUS, and its 2002 ruling in Zelman v. Simmons-Harris, the answer is no. Specifically, in her consenting opinion, Sandra Day Oconner wrote that the government’s control of a school choice voucher “…ends with the disbursement of benefits”.

    But the government, especially with regard to Vermont’s current legislature, is making an end run around this ruling by severely regulating the so-called school approval process. The legislature maintains that any education program receiving public tuition funds must conform to dystopian Agency of Education regulations. Parents may choose the school they believe best meets the needs of their children. But when the choice of schools is so limited, there is, effectively, no real choice.

    Yes, this is an unconstitutional abridgement of the SCOTUS’s 2002 ruling. But it must play out in the courts to be resolved. And what we’re seeing today, the advent of ‘lawfare’, is that the judicial system has become corrupted by the constant and persistent movement of the legal goal posts by self-serving legislators. In other words, legislators change the rules faster than the courts can review those rules, effectively eliminating any individual freedoms we still have.

    We are at a profound crossroad in the U. S. Constitutional Republic. The government, and its administrative membership, have become so large that they hold the majority of the electorate. As Ben Franklin opined… it’s tantamount to two wolves and a lamb voting on what to have for lunch.

    Franklin proposed a solution to this dilemma. But I leave it to the readers to do their own research in that regard. I am reticent to repeat Franklin’s fix, lest I be censored, gas lighted, deplatformed, or threatened legally for alleged subversion and treason.

    So… here we are.

  6. So what do we do? Duck and cover?

    I may not be the sharpest tool in the shed, but I have a highly developed BS meter. There’s a huge amount of complaining here with no solutions offered other than voting in a Republican majority at all levels of state and local government. I personally have no problem with that and would welcome the change.

    We all know what’s wrong and who perpetrated those wrongs.
    What is going to be done to fix it?

    Tell me in terms even an uneducated, Wiki-dependent simpleton such as myself can understand.

    • Begin here, JD.

      Simply eliminate any semblance of monopoly control from the provisioning of educational goods and services. Whether the government, Federal, State or Municipality, chooses to subsidize the cost of educational goods and services with tax dollars or not, the control of the benefit by the government, if it even exists, “…ends with the disbursement of benefits”. From that point on, let the free market between consumers (the parents and their children) and providers (the teachers) operate.

      “A major source of objection to a free economy is precisely that it … gives people what they want instead of what a particular group thinks they ought to want. Underlying most arguments against the free market is a lack of belief in freedom itself.” ― Milton Friedman

    • That is a good question. The problem is hard to solve because it starts at the very top of the Biden Administration and its policies, which are trickled down into state agencies like the Department of Education. The reason why international nonelected entities (like UNESCO and OECD) are able to control education and virtually all other policies is because these policies are being trickled down from the top and are a result of international treaties that usurp US law and Constitutional rights.This is why so many people are frustrated. Obama signed the US into to the 2030 agenda in 2015, and Biden is implementing the agenda. I work in government contracting and there are very large federal acquisitions, see GSA OASIS RFP, that require federal agencies to comply with and report on ESG, carbon capture and storage, environmental justice and equity. These are all United Nations Sustainable Development Goals. Our politicians are implicitly or explicitly involved. Parents have been voicing their displeasure at school board meetings, as a result hey were labeled as domestic terrorists. I heard the Senate testimony and Garland admitted that not one school board representative has been harmed by parents. The reason why parents were declared as domestic terrorists is because implementation of the sustainable development agenda is not optional. They are forcing this through. Carbon and electric cars are also part of the sustainable development agenda, aka Net Zero.

    • JD, How can a person have a highly developed BS meter if they haven’t a clue about the subject being discussed? Instead of proving ignorance {that can be fixed) that person should do some research before commenting. You have been corrected so many times I’ve lost count.