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.
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.