Education

The Case for Private Education Co-operatives

Teachers walk the picket line as they strike outside Garfield High School in Seattle, Wash., in 2015. (Matt Mills McKnight/Reuters)
Teachers’ unions now have the nation’s parents over a barrel. Local, voluntary, accountable private schools could break their stranglehold while helping kids and strengthening communities.

Death, taxes, and appalling behavior on the part of public teachers’ unions: These are the three dependable certainties of modern American life.

One of these things is not like the others, however. Death and taxation tend to receive ample coverage in almost every news outlet across the land. Most newspapers contain a section for obituaries and an article or two each day about how the government has decided to spend the money of its citizens. But it hasn’t (yet) become a custom among the proprietors of newspapers or major networks to set aside a similar daily section for reporting the pernicious activities of the teachers’ unions. This is quite baffling. The abject moral destitution and thuggish intimidation tactics of these education cartels are at least as widespread as death and taxation. Editors and reporters all over the country could, therefore, save themselves a lot of hard work by simply allocating a certain amount of column inches or airtime each day to the coverage of teachers’ unions. At a time when media companies have mastered the art of monetizing outrage, it’s shocking that the behavior of these unions goes largely unnoticed most of the time. That is, it’s shocking until you remember that union members share a party affiliation with almost every employee of the mainstream media.

The pandemic, however, has made the modus operandi of the unions impossible to ignore for millions of parents in the United States. Teachers’ unions have always ransomed taxpayers until their demands are met. In this way, they’re no different from other public-sector unions. Government teachers are not content with using the proper democratic processes to ask that taxpayers give them every item on their Christmas wish list, presented with a bow on top. Whenever democracy disappoints them, these unions inevitably revert to strikes.

But teachers’ unions add an extra layer of malevolence to the already anti-democratic tactics of other public-sector unions. It’s not just taxpayers who are held for ransom by government teachers — children and parents are, too. If parents entrust the education of their children to a government school, they should know that the schooling will always take place on the terms of the teachers’ unions, which decide what to teach, when to teach, and the conditions under which teaching takes place. This is because unions know, and have made sure, that “management ” (read “government”) is not in a position to fire all of them — given that parents need somewhere to send their kids during the day and that kids need to be educated.

Several teachers’ unions have recently taken advantage of this sorry state of affairs to condition the reopening of schools on the attainment of their left-wing political objectives. At one point during recent reopening negotiations, the United Teachers of Los Angeles demanded a wealth tax, police reform, and a ban on charter schools. Rather difficult to make out how any of that would improve “staff and student safety” in the time of coronavirus. As late as the day before an agreement was reached with Mayor de Blasio last week, the New York City teachers’ union was threatening to strike. As a result of those negotiations, school reopening in New York has been pushed back an extra week and a half, to September 21, preventing many local parents from going back to full-time work until then.

In the best of all possible worlds, the president of the United States would simply stride out to the Rose Garden and announce that all public-school teachers were being fired, as Reagan did with the air-traffic controllers in ’81. The president would then announce that all federal education funding would be divided up evenly among American children and funneled to discretionary accounts controlled by their guardians and set aside for the sole purpose of private-school fees. Private schools across the land could then compete to enroll children, whose academic destiny would, at last, be in hands of the individual child and his family, where it has always belonged.

Sadly, this happy sequence of events probably won’t come to pass any time soon. For the time being, it’s up to parents and community leaders to take matters into their own hands. How is this to be done? By forming private education co-operatives. In his book The End Is Near and It’s going to Be Awesome, my colleague Kevin Williamson writes eloquently about the widespread existence of voluntary mutual-aid societies that existed in the U.S. before the New Deal. Their primary purpose at the time was to provide members with health insurance:

Before the New Deal, a surprisingly large number of Americans were covered by social insurance plans — plans that existed entirely outside the sphere of formal politics. These programs offered a surprising array of services: life insurance, hospitalization, medical benefits covering everything from doctors’ fees and hospital charges to wages lost due to illness or injury, survivors benefits, old-age pensions, and even care at retirement homes. And these were not programs for the rich, but for the working class and the poor: Their members were disproportionately low-income laborers, immigrants, and African Americans. They were administered on a nonprofit, voluntary, peer-to-peer basis by community associations of a sort that have, unfortunately, all but disappeared, and the resurrection of which would offer a very attractive alternative to the declining entitlement state. Familiar fraternal organizations such as the Masons, the Elks Lodge, and the Odd Fellows, together with smaller groups and organizations specific to particular ethnic and immigrant populations, included an astonishing number of Americans in the first half of the twentieth century: About one in three Americans over the age of twenty-one belonged to such groups; that number, however, understates their prevalence, since many of those members were the heads of households whose wives and children were covered by the social insurance policies they offered.

Members of a community, whether religious, ethnic, or merely geographic, would ban together and pool their resources so that each could have access to quality health care. This stands in contrast to the public-insurance model, whereby resources are forcibly confiscated by the taxman and decisions concerning their use are referred to distant bureaucrats and political commissars.

Why not revive the model of private association in the context of education? Most parents send their kids to public school only because private schools are too expensive. But if churches, neighborhoods, and nonprofits formed private education co-operatives, in which poorer parents could draw on community resources in the context of face-to-face relationships and voluntary solidarity, communities across the country could begin to declare independence from government education.

At the moment, poorer parents largely do not draw on the financial resources of their community. Community is voluntary, face-to-face, human, accountable, and local. By contrast, government welfare is impersonal, uncaring, unaccountable, and coercive. It bequeaths material resources to recipients, but without any bonds of human relationship or mutual emotional investment. Even the word we use to describe this process, “entitlements,” connotes a relationship between the benefactor and the recipient that is far weaker than those in a community where money is exchanged on a voluntary basis. Because the government takes everyone’s taxes and puts them in one big pot and then spends this undifferentiated lump of money in the form of “government outlays,” the people who receive government funds generally have no idea who in particular is paying for the services they’re receiving. Government places itself between giver and receiver and annihilates the individual relationship between the two. The result is that the human element in this exchange of material resources is completely erased.

If communities throughout the country were to form private education co-operatives, poorer parents could put a name and a face to the funds that are propelling their sons and daughters to academic heights. Richer benefactors would also be able to witness how their wealth can enrich their community — a moralizing experience in itself that might serve as a social check against the materialist excesses of consumerism.

A local association of churches, for example, should have, as a part of its ministry, a Christian education co-operative. A sizable portion of each congregation’s tithe and financial donations could be channeled into the co-operative fund so that members of the church who could not otherwise afford to send their child to a Christian private school would have the same opportunity as the congregation’s wealthier members. After all, if a Christian church cannot voluntarily redress the disparities in wealth among its members, then what institution will?

This is not to say that co-operative enterprises like this would have to be religious in nature or motivation. Any and all kinds of communities should form these co-ops. The kaleidoscopic nature of America’s social variety is (along with its geographic variety) is one of the most enchanting and remarkable things about this country. There’s no reason why there shouldn’t be as many kinds of private schools as there are American ways of life.

We have become so used to the idea of government education that it does not strike us nearly as oddly as it should. For centuries, American parents have simply handed their children over to the state once they reach school age, much in the same way that they hand over the garbage when they take it to the side of the road. The negative consequences of this model are too numerous to list here. But, as I noted above, parents across the nation are experiencing some of them right now as the teachers’ unions threaten to stop work if their conditions are not met.

As long as the poor and the working class have no better option than to give their children over to the state for six hours a day, public education will always have an outsized and pernicious influence on our national life. The better-off parents among us cannot be content with simply sending our own children to private school and leaving the poor to suffer what they must at the hands of bureaucrats. An enlightened libertarianism will always seek to replace welfare with charity, and state coercion with voluntary community. The idea of private education co-operatives accords with every great American tradition of social action. It is local, voluntary, anti-statist, aspirational, enterprising, and infused with the spirit of moral mission that animated all of our great reformers. It is the kind of endeavor that would bring a knowing smile of recognition to the face of Alexis de Tocqueville. After all, the great Frenchman would surely recognize it as quintessentially characteristic of those restless colonial reformers at the edge of the known world whom he so admired when he came to these shores. The only question left to ask Americans today is, “What are you waiting for?”

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