Public education

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Public education is education sponsored by the government.[1]


In Athens, the original practice of compulsory state education later gave way to a voluntary system. In Sparta, on the other hand, an ancient model for modern totalitarianism, the State was organized as one vast military camp, and the children were educated in barracks to the ideal of State obedience. Sparta realized the full logical conclusion of the compulsory system; absolute State control over the "whole child"; uniformity and education in passive obedience to State orders. The most important consequence of this system was that it provided the ideal for Plato, who made this educational system the basis of his ideal State, as set forth in the Republic and the Laws. Plato's "Utopia" was the first model for later despotisms — compulsory education and obedience were stressed, there was "communism" of children among the elite "guardians" who also had no private property, and lying was considered a proper instrument for the State to use in its indoctrination of the people.[2]

Middle Ages

In the Middle Ages, the problem of compulsory state education did not present itself in Europe. Instruction was carried on in Church schools and universities, in private schools, and in private schools for occupational training. The first modern movement for compulsory state education stemmed directly from the Reformation. A prime force was Martin Luther. Luther repeatedly called for communities to establish public schools and to make attendance in them compulsory. The Reformers advocated compulsory education for all as a means of inculcating the entire population with their particular religious views, as an indispensable aid in effective "war with the devil" and the devil's agents.

Luther stressed the theory of passive obedience, according to which no motives or provocation can justify a revolt against the State. In 1530, he declared: "It was the duty of a Christian to suffer wrong, and no breach of oath or of duty could deprive the Emperor of his right to the unconditional obedience of his subjects." In this way, he hoped to induce the princes to adopt and compel Lutheranism in their domains. Luther was expressly adamant that the State power be used with utmost severity against people who refused to be converted to Lutheranism.

As a result of Luther's urgings, the German state of Gotha founded the first modern public schools in 1524, and Thurungia followed in 1527. Luther himself founded the Saxony School Plan, which later became, in essence, the state education system for most of the Protestant States of Germany. This plan was put into effect first in Saxony in 1528, through an edict drawn up by Luther's important disciple Melanchthon, setting up state schools in every town and village. The first compulsory state system in the modern world was established in 1559 by Duke Christopher, Elector of Wurtemburg. Attendance was compulsory, attendance records were kept and fines were levied on truants. Other German states soon followed this example.

The Lutheran influence on the political and educational life of the West, and particularly Germany, has been enormous. He was the first advocate of compulsory schooling, and his plans were the pattern for the first German schools. Furthermore, he inculcated Lutherans with the ideals of obedience to the State and persecution of all dissenters. As the historian Acton states, he "impressed on his party that character of political dependence, and that habit of passive obedience to the State, which it has ever since retained."

Aside from Luther, the other leading influence toward the establishment of compulsory education in the modern world was the other great Reformer, John Calvin. Calvin went to Geneva in 1536, while the town was successfully revolting against the Duke of Savoy and the Catholic Church, and was appointed chief pastor and ruler of the city, which position he held until 1564. In Geneva, Calvin established a number of public schools, at which attendance was compulsory. To Calvin, nothing mattered, no liberty or right was important, except his doctrine and its supremacy. He, too, was adamant in asserting the duty of obedience to rulers regardless of their form of government. Government has divine sanction, and as long as it was Calvinist, it could pursue any course without deserving protest. Not only must all heretics be killed, but the same punishment should be meted out to those who deny the justice of such punishment.

Calvin's influence on the Western world was wider than Luther's because, with diligent propaganda efforts, he made Geneva the European center for the widespread diffusion of his principles. Men from all over Europe came to study at Calvin's schools and read his tracts, and the result was Calvinist influence throughout Europe.

As the Calvinists became important throughout Europe, they agitated for the establishment of compulsory state schools. In 1560, the French Calvinists, the Huguenots, sent a memorandum to the king, requesting the establishment of universal compulsory education, but were turned down. In 1571, however, Queen Jeanne d'Albret, of the Estates of Navarre, under Calvinist influence, made primary education compulsory throughout that part of France. Calvinist Holland established compulsory public schools in 1609. John Knox, who conquered Scotland for his Presbyterian Church, was a Calvinist, although he had arrived at many of the principles independently. He established the Church along Calvinist lines, and proclaimed the death penalty for Catholics. Knox attempted to establish universal compulsory education in Scotland in the 1560s, but failed in the attempt. He advocated it in his Book of Discipline, which called for public schools in every Scottish town.[2]


German education, as well as most of its other institutions and civilization, was completely disrupted by the Thirty Years Wars, in the first half of the seventeenth century. At the close of the conflict, however, the various state governments moved to make attendance of children at school compulsory upon penalty of fine and imprisonment of the children. The first step was taken by Gotha in 1643, followed by such states as Heildesheim in 1663, Prussia in 1669, and Calemberg in 1681.

The state of Prussia began to rise in power and dominance at the beginning of the eighteenth century led by its first king, Frederick William I. Frederick William believed fervently in paternal despotism, and in the virtues of monarchical absolutism. One of his first measures was to effect a huge increase in the Prussian army, founded on an iron discipline which became famous throughout Europe. In civil administration, King Frederick William forged the centralizing engine of the Civil Service, which grew into the famous autocratic Prussian bureaucracy. In the commercial world, the King imposed restrictions, regulations, and subsidies on trade and business.

It was King Frederick William I who inaugurated the Prussian compulsory school system, the first national system in Europe. In 1717, he ordered compulsory attendance of all children at the state schools, and, in later acts, he followed with the provision for the construction of more such schools.

These beginnings were carried forward by his son Frederick the Great, who vigorously reasserted the principle of compulsory attendance in the state schools, and established the flourishing national system, particularly in his Landschulreglement of 1763. What were the goals that animated Frederick the Great? Again, a fervent belief in absolute despotism, although this was supposed to be "enlightened." "The prince," he declared, "is to the nation he governs what the head is to the man; it is his duty to see, think, and act for the whole community." He was particularly fond of the army, spent public funds freely upon it, and inculcated especially constant drill and the strictest discipline.

Modern Prussian despotism emerged as a direct result of the disastrous defeat inflicted by Napoleon. In 1807, the Prussian nation began to reorganize and gird itself for future victories. Under King Frederick William III, the absolute State was greatly strengthened. His famous minister, von Stein, began by abolishing the semi-religious private schools, and placing all education directly under the Minister of the Interior. In 1810, the ministry , decreed the necessity of State examination and certification of all teachers. In 1812, the school graduation examination was revived as a necessary requirement for the child's departure from the state school, and an elaborate system of bureaucrats to supervise the schools was established in the country and the towns.

Hand in hand with the compulsory school system went a revival and great extension of the army, and in particular the institution of universal compulsory military service.

Frederick William III continued the reorganization after the wars, and strengthened the compulsory state school system in 1834 by making it necessary for young entrants into the learned professions, as well as all candidates for the Civil Service and for university students to pass the high-school graduation examinations. In this way the Prussian state had effective control over all the rising generations of scholars and other professionals.

Not only were there public schools in the elementary and higher grades, for pre-university and pre-business students, but also 1,700 teachers' seminaries for the training of future state teachers. Furthermore, there were stringent laws obliging parents to send their children to the schools. Children had to attend the schools between the ages of seven and fourteen, and no excuses were permitted except physical inability or absolute idiocy. Parents of truants were warned, and finally punished by fines, or by civil disabilities, and as a last resort, the child was taken from its parents and educated and reared by the local authorities. Religious instruction was given in the schools in accordance with the religion of the locality, but the children were not obliged to attend these. However, it was compulsory for them to receive religious instruction in the home or from the church, in that case. Furthermore, the minister of education had to be a Protestant.

Private schools began to be permitted, but they were obliged to have the same standards of instruction as the state schools, and through these and the graduation examination requirements, the State was able to impose its control on all of the schools in the country.

The Prussian educational system was extended to the rest of Germany upon the formation of Germany as a national state. Furthermore, a decree in 1872 strengthened the absolute control of the State over the schools against any possible incursions by the Catholic Church.[2]


Universal compulsory education, like compulsory military service, was ushered into France by the French Revolution. The revolutionary Constitution of 1791 decreed compulsory primary instruction for all. The Government could not do much to put these principles into effect at first, but it tried its best. In 1793, the Convention prescribed that the French language be the sole language of the "republic, one and indivisible." Little was done until the advent of Napoleon, who established a comprehensive state education. All schools, whether public or nominally private, were subject to the strict control of the national government. Dominating the entire system was the "University of France," which was established to insure uniformity and control throughout the entire French educational system. Its chief officials were appointed by Napoleon, and no one could open a new school or teach in public unless he was licensed by the official university. Thus, in this law of 1806, Napoleon acted to secure a monopoly of teaching to the State. The teaching staff of the public schools was to be routed through a normal school operated by the State. All these schools were directed to take as the basis of their teaching the principles of loyalty to the head of the State, and obedience to the statutes of the university. Due to lack of funds, the system of public schools could not then be imposed on all. By the end of the Napoleonic era, slightly less than half of French children attended public schools, the rest largely in Catholic schools. The private schools, however, were now under the regulation of the State and were obliged to teach patriotism on behalf of the rulers.

With the Restoration, the Napoleonic system was largely dismantled and education in France became predominantly a Catholic Church affair. After the revolution of 1830, however, Minister Guizot began to renew State power in his act of 1833. Attendance was not made compulsory, and the private schools were left intact, except for the significant requirement that all educational institutions must teach "internal and social peace." Complete liberty for private schools was restored, however, by the Falloux Law, passed in 1850 by Louis Napoleon.

With the exception, then, of the Revolutionary and Napoleonic periods, French education remained free until the latter part of the nineteenth century. Just as Prussian compulsion and absolutism had received a great impetus from the defeat at the hands of Napoleon, so did French compulsion and dictation receive its inspiration from the victory of Prussia in 1871. The Prussian victories were considered the victories of the Prussian army and the Prussian schoolmaster, and France, driven by the desire for revenge (revanche), set about to Prussianize its own institutions. In acts of 1882 and 1889, it inaugurated universal military conscription on the Prussian model.

Leader in the new policy was Minister Jules Ferry. Ferry was the main champion of a new policy of aggressive imperialism and colonial conquest. Aggressions were carried on in North Africa, in lower Africa, and in Indochina.

Demands for compulsory education arose from the goal of military revanche. As a leading politician Gambetta put it: "the Prussian schoolmaster had won the last war, and the French schoolmaster must win the next." To this end, a clamor arose for extension of the school system to every French child, for training in citizenship. Also, there were demands for compulsory education so that every French child would be inoculated in republicanism and immune to the lures of monarchical restoration. As a result, Fey, in a series of laws in 1881 and 1882, made French education compulsory. Private schools were nominally left free, but actually were greatly restricted by the compulsory dissolution of the Jesuit Order and its expulsion from France. Many of the private schools in France had been run by the Jesuits. Moreover, the laws abolished many monastic orders which had not been formally "authorized" by the State, and forbade their members to conduct schools. Attendance at some school was compulsory for all children between six and thirteen years of age.

The effect of the new regime was to dominate the private schools completely since those that were not affected by the anti-Catholic laws had to subsist under the decree that "private schools cannot be established without a license from the minister, and can be shut up by a simple ministerial order." Private secondary schools were severely crippled by the Walleck-Rousseau and Combes acts of 1901 and 1904, which suppressed all private religious secondary schools in France.[2]

Other Countries

The story of compulsory education in the other countries of Europe is quite similar, with the added element of compulsory languages in most of them. The Austro-Hungarian Empire strove for a uniform, centralized absolute monarchy, with the language to be solely German, while the Hungarian segment of the empire attempted to "Magyarize" its minority nationalities and abolish all languages except Hungarian within its borders. Spain has used its compulsory school acts to suppress the Catalan language and to impose Castilian. Switzerland has a system of compulsory schooling ingrained into its Constitution. In general, every country in Europe had established compulsory education by 1900, with the exception of Belgium, which followed by 1920.[2]


The tradition of voluntarism was at its strongest in England. So strong was it that, not only was there no compulsory education in England until the late nineteenth century, but there was not even a public school system. Before the 1830s, the State did not interfere in education at all. After 1833, the State began to make ever-increasing grants to promote indirectly the education of the poor in private schools. This was strictly philanthropic, and there was no trace of compulsion. Finally, compulsion was introduced into English education in the famous Education Act of 1870. This act permitted County boards to make attendance compulsory. London County immediately did so for children between five and thirteen, and other large towns followed suit. The rural counties, however, were reluctant to impose compulsory attendance. By 1876, 50 percent of the school population was under compulsion in Britain, and 84 percent of the city children. The Act of 1876 set up school attendance boards in those areas where there were no school boards, and attendance was compulsory in all of those remote areas, except where children lived more than two miles from school. Finally, the Act of 1880 compelled all the county school boards to decree and enforce compulsory attendance. Thus, in a decade, compulsory education had conquered England.

The compulsory collectivist principle represented quite a clash with the individualist tradition in England. The notable Newcastle Commission in 1861 rejected the idea of compulsory education on the grounds of individualistic principle. Trenchant criticism of the compulsory state education plan as a capstone of growing State tyranny was leveled by Herbert Spencer and by the eminent historian and jurist Sir Henry Maine. In recent years, Arnold Toynbee has pointed out how compulsory state education stifles independent thought.

The change of opinion in England was particularly swift on this issue. When Dicey wrote in 1905, he declared that scarcely anyone could be found to attack compulsory education. Yet, when John Stuart Mill wrote his On Liberty in 1859, he declared that scarcely anyone could be found who would not strenuously oppose compulsory education.[2]

United States

In the majority of American colonies, education was in the English tradition, i.e., voluntary parental education, with the only public schools being those established for poor families free to make use of the facilities. This system originated in the Middle and in the Southern colonies. The crucial exception was New England, the sparkplug of the collectivist educational system in America. In contrast to the other colonies, New England was dominated by the Calvinist tradition, among the English Puritans who settled Massachusetts, and later the other New England colonies. The ruthless and ascetic Puritans who founded the Massachusetts Bay Colony were eager to adopt the Calvinist plan of compulsory education in order to insure the creation of good Calvinists and the suppression of any possible dissent. Only a year after its first set of particular laws, the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1642 enacted a compulsory literacy law for all children. Furthermore, whenever the state officials judged that the parents or guardians were unfit or unable to take care of the children properly, the state could seize the children and apprentice them to the state appointees, who would give them the required instruction.

In 1647, the colony followed up this law with the establishment of public schools. The major stress in the compulsory education was laid on the teaching of Calvinist-Puritan principles.

It is significant that the slightly older and more religiously liberal Pilgrim colony of Plymouth did not set up a compulsory educational system. When the Plymouth colony was merged into the Massachusetts Bay, however, the latter's education laws prevailed.

The Puritans soon spread out to other states, and Connecticut was governed in the same spirit. Rhode Island, however, was far more liberal, and it is no coincidence that Rhode Island was the exception in New England in the setting up of state school systems during the colonial period.

During the eighteenth century, the colonial religious severity gradually weakened its hold on the community. More sects arose and flourished. Massachusetts and Connecticut, however, enacted repressive laws against the Quakers, forbidding them also to establish schools. Furthermore, Connecticut, in a vain attempt to suppress the "New Light" movement, enacted a law in 1742 forbidding the New Lights from establishing any schools. Their reasons: that this "may tend to train youth in principles and practices, and introduce such disorders as may be of fatal consequences to the public peace and weal of this colony."

Finally, the Revolutionary War disrupted the entire education system, and the independent states were ready to begin anew. The new States met the problem very much as they had done as colonies. Once again, Massachusetts led the way in establishing compulsory education, which her colonial laws had always provided. She took the unusual step of including in her State Constitution of 1780 a provision expressly granting authority to the legislature to enforce compulsory attendance at school. This authority was promptly exercised, and in 1789 school attendance was made compulsory in Massachusetts.

Connecticut followed in 1805 with a law requiring all parents to educate their children. Connecticut followed this compulsory literacy with a law in 1842 requiring all employed children under fifteen to attend school for three months during a year, thus adding a compulsory schooling to its general elementary compulsory education, or literacy, laws. Massachusetts's laws were lax on truants, however, and in 1845 Boston attempted to pass a bill against truancy of unemployed children, but lost on the ground that the rights of parents were threatened. The bill did pass in 1846, however. In 1850 Massachusetts authorized its towns to make provisions for habitual truants, and provided that they could be confined in prison. Finally in 1852, Massachusetts established the first comprehensive statewide, modern system of compulsory schooling in the United States. It provided that all children between eight and fourteen had to attend school at least thirteen weeks each year. Massachusetts, over the rest of the century continued to extend and strengthen its compulsory education laws. In 1862, for example, it made jailing of habitual truant children mandatory, and extended school age to between ages seven and sixteen. In 1866, school attendance was made compulsory for six months during the year.

Between 1825 and 1850, the propaganda work had been such that the non-New England states had changed from a system of no public schools, or only pauper schools, to the establishment of free schools available to all. Furthermore, the spirit of the schools had changed from philanthropy to the poor to something which all children were induced to attend. By 1850, every state had a network of free public schools.

In 1850, all the states had public schools, but only Massachusetts and Connecticut were imposing compulsion. The movement for compulsory schooling conquered all of America in the late nineteenth century. Massachusetts began the parade, and the other states all followed, mainly in the 1870s and 1880s. By 1900, almost every state was enforcing compulsory attendance.

The despotic Prussian system formed an inspiring model for the leading professional educationists in the United States, who ruled the public school systems here and were largely responsible for its extension. For example, Calvin E. Stowe, one of the prominent American educators of the day, wrote a report on the Prussian system and praised it as worthy of imitation in the US. Stowe lauded Prussia; although under the absolute monarchy of Frederick William III, it was the "best-educated" country in the world.[2]


In Western countries with compulsory free schooling, as much as twenty percent of the population is functionally illiterate. Also, as many as ten percent of government students are absent on the average day, more than twice the rate of private school students.[3]

Public vs. private schools

Government schools are coercive institutions; private schools are voluntary. Due to compulsory school laws and laws making homeschooling difficult, students whose parents cannot afford private schools and find homeschooling impractical must attend a government school. Taxpayers must pay for them. The rules and regulations governing government schools are rigid, inflexible and by definition, coercive. The teachers unions gain great power over the schools by application of federal and state laws granting them special legal privileges. Throughout the bureaucracy, due to civil service and union rules and laws, it is difficult for anyone to be fired. The schools must accept virtually all students whether they want them or not and whether or not they are fit for a classroom. Students and parents and even teachers who do not like the way the schools are run have few options for changing things.

In the government school system, there is a hierarchy of legal power. Roughly speaking, that hierarchy starts with the state education bureaucracy and proceeds downward to local schools boards, then to the superintendent, down to the principal, the teachers and finally, at the bottom of the pyramid, the students and their parents. On certain issues, the federal government sits at the top of the pyramid and can bark orders at even the state education departments. It is a top-down, coercive, bureaucratic model of decision-making.

What are the ramifications of such a structure of decision-making? Given the assumption of human self-interest, those with power tend to act in accordance with their own interests. They will of course rationalize this behavior by saying they are acting in the public interest or the student's interest. However, since they have unilateral power over those below them in the pyramid, they can make their decisions without consulting them. They can so act even if the students and the parents are absolutely positive that their decisions are not in their interest.

In sharp contrast, private schools are voluntary institutions. While (non-homeschooled) students must go to some school, they need not go to that school. And they can leave any time. The private school doesn't have to admit them and can, more or less, kick them out any time. The principal can, subject to contractual severance pay, be fired anytime, or leave any time. The same is true with teachers. Though there may be private school teachers unions in some places, they do not have nearly the power of the government school unions to keep incompetent teachers on the job forever. Instead of being at the bottom of a pyramid of power, families who send their children to private school are on a horizontal plane with the school, itself. They are equal to one another in the power to sever the relationship.

What are the ramifications of the voluntary nature of the private school? There, you can't merely say or think that your actions are beneficial to the other parties involved. They must actually be perceived as such by those parties. If not, they will walk away. The actions of the parents and students, the teachers and the administration must be mutually beneficial and perceived as such because no one can impose their will on the others for more than a very short period of time, say, till the next school year starts. Everyone must be on their best behavior at all times and no one has the power to exploit the others.

Power flows down in the government school system. It turns out that information travels in the same direction as power. All top-down bureaucracies share this fatal defect: a shortage of valuable information flowing up to them from below. If you sit at the bottom of a pyramid of power, there is little incentive to pass upward information about the defects of the system or suggestions for improvement. As economist Thomas Sowell explains:

"Feedback which can be safely ignored by decision makers is not socially effective knowledge. Effective feedback does not mean the mere articulation of information, but the implicit transmission of others' knowledge in the explicit form of effective incentives to the recipients."

Private schools receive valuable feedback about their operations from students and parents who expect their complaints to be taken seriously because they have the option of going elsewhere. Government schools are starved of such "effective knowledge."[4]

Free rider problem

Main article: Free rider problem

Education has positive externalities whose value is not captured by the person who pays for the education. Because these externalities exist, the argument goes, people tend to act as "free riders," receiving the benefit provided by others without paying for it. Thus, fewer people are willing to provide education than would be willing without such spillovers because they are not rewarded for some of the output they produce. Therefore, according to most economists, education will be undersupplied.

These arguments lead inevitably to the claim that the government must help to provide education, and, indeed, governments are heavily engaged in supplying this "public good."

The problem with public provision is that the task of ensuring that the government supplies the proper quantity and quality of "public goods" is itself a public good. When the government supplies a product, paid for indirectly by taxpayers rather than by the direct recipients of the product, few have an incentive to spend the time and resources to make sure that the government supplies the right quantity and quality. If the theory of public goods is correct, relatively few people are likely to spend time and resources making sure that someone else’s education (or health care or justice) is adequate.

As a result, the public good may be provided badly — oversupplied, undersupplied, or poorly supplied. The root of those problems is precisely the same as that of the free-rider problem associated with private production of public goods. No one has a strong incentive to make sure that the public good is well provided.

Funded through taxation, rather than through voluntary purchases, public entities have monopolistic power—without even the restraint of traditional monopolies, which must obtain their revenues from voluntary purchases. Moreover, government schools operate largely without competition.[5]


  1. Encyclopædia Britannica Online. "education 2012.", referenced 2012-04-17.
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 2.3 2.4 2.5 2.6 Murray N. Rothbard. Education: Free and Compulsory. Referenced 2012-04-19.
  3. James Tooley. "Education in the Voluntary City," in The Voluntary City: Choice, Community, and Civil Society, ed. D. Beito, Peter Gordon & A. Tabarrok (Independent Institute, Ann Arbor, 2002), p. 223. Referenced 2012-04-18.
  4. James Ostrowski. "How Did We Get Into This Mess?",, November 20, 2009, referenced 2012-04-20.
  5. Jane S. Shaw. "Education—A Bad Public Good?" (pdf), The Independent Review, v. 15, n. 2, Fall 2010, ISSN 1086–1653, pp. 241–256. Referenced 2013-02-18.