What would a libertarian school look like?

Having deeply disliked my own schooling experience, I have for years wondered what a libertarian school system would look like.

Here are my ideas, which I think would make a viable business model.

(Note that I fully support homeschooling initiatives, and this is not supposed to replace them – merely offer yet another alternative.)

If there were a few tenets of a libertarian school, they would be:

  1. Individuality.
  2. Freedom of choice.
  3. Initiative.

You’ll see what I mean in a moment.

The Incentive System

I want to look at this through the eyes of every economic actor in this (knowledge) transaction. The students, teachers, parents, and management. By analyzing the incentives that every party has, we can get a very good picture of what would happen in such a school.

The Students

In a libertarian school, exams might be optional

You can take them, but you don’t have to. It’s up to each teacher to decide how they teach and assess their class. You might not even have to pass an exam to move on to the next level of the class.

The students are thus not worried or anxious about having to pass exams, or achieve good results, unless they themselves want to.

A tremendous amount of anxiety and depression results from the pressure of exams, and forcing this on children, of all people, is psychologically traumatizing and irresponsible; never mind irrelevant to preparing children for adult life.

According to one study, severe depression affects 30% of college students to the extent that they were “so depressed that it was difficult to function.” Not exactly the most conducive learning environment, now is it? And these problems no doubt begin at school.

The Interested Student

Secondly, the subjects would be optional. Teachers would provide introductory classes to show potential students what an average class would look like. If the teacher can successfully interest the student, then the student takes the class. If they can’t, the student can look for another subject, or another teacher for the same subject.

This solves the age-old dilemma of what to do with students who don’t care to learn. In the standard collectivist class, there are students who want to learn and students who don’t, all together in one group. It’s completely counterproductive.

Aptitude

Levels of difficulty would also be optional. Students would not have to sit through an entire year, and then pass an exam, to move on to the next level. They could voluntarily move up a level if they find the current one too easy, or move down if they find it too hard, but still want to learn the subject.

The result would be not an age-based class, but one based on aptitude and interest. The friends a child makes would also not necessarily be of the same age, but would however share the same interests. This is more natural, and similar to what the child would experience in later life.

Coercion kills initiative

So should a student not wish to attend class, that is their prerogative! If they want to skip a class, or if they want to cancel it altogether – nobody should stop them. If they want to switch level, or switch teacher, that is also fine.

Students would have to create their own timetables, because nobody would do it for them. That kind of organizational initiative is very important later in life.

When children are forced into submission and coerced into doing things, their initiative, that spark of motivation and curiosity, is killed. It is tragic, because children are capable of so much more.

But to unleash that potential, they must be given freedom.

The Teachers

Teachers answer directly to parents – with their very livelihood

The teachers are paid directly by the parents. Not as a yearly, collective sign-on payment for the school, but directly to the teachers whose classes their kid has signed on to.

In my version of a free school, students would get to pick their own teachers. There would be multiple teachers teaching the same subject, and no student would ever be forced to sit through a class they didn’t want to.

Competition among teachers

The teachers are now competing for the students. Competing both between themselves within a subject area, and with other teachers who teach other classes. The lazy, boring, ill-informed or propagandistic teacher will no longer prevail.

In this free market for knowledge, students will simply choose someone else.

Disruptive students will be quickly kicked out

But this is a two-way street. If a teacher thinks that a particular student is impacting his other students’ ability to learn, then he can kick them out of the class. He may lose income from that kid’s parents, but the other kids’ parents will hear good reports about conducive learning environments and peaceful classes.

All the incentives are there for the teachers to be the best they can be – or to lose their jobs. (Who wants to bet the teachers unions would never support such a schooling initiative?)

The Managers (headmaster, administration)

Profits require creation of value (for the outputs to be worth more than the inputs)

The school would be run with a profit motive in mind. And this is great, because only the profit motive (in a freely competitive market) ensures that value for others is systematically created, and not destroyed.

The managers would no longer hire teachers in the classical way. They could instead contract with them under more liberal terms. As a teacher is a contractor, his terms of employment are entirely dependent on his or her ability to retain students.

The mechanics of school funding

The managers, and the school in general, would receive funding at a certain percentage of what the teacher earns from the parents. This would be prearranged based on the contract, and better teachers who have more students would have more of a bargaining power with the managers.

The sum would also differ based on subject matter and the requirements for special equipment.

The money the school takes would be delineated into different categories. One would be building upkeep and new building costs, depending on which building and room that teacher chooses to use. Another would be equipment, and of course finally there would be the general cost of being part of the school. It is out of the last category that the manager’s profit would come from.

Creating a free market for knowledge, and earning a profit along the way

The school in this sense is a conduit, or enabler of education. Its role is to create an adequate learning environment, a sort of free market for knowledge. The teachers, students, and parents will sort out the rest.

No more subject subsidies

Which means that an English class that only requires books, papers, and pens would be cheaper to attend, and the teacher would have to pay less to the school too.

On the other hand, a computer science class, or a laboratory that required complex equipment, would have higher equipment fees and hence higher costs to the parents.

This system effectively discriminates between subject matters based on their true, free market costs of attendance.

There is no reason English Literature students and parents should be subsidizing biology labs. And insofar as the cost of learning a discipline is not representative of reality – it makes the economic calculations we all do completely wrong. In order to ensure optimal resource allocation, it is vital that the free market is allowed to determine the prices and costs of things. We’re not just talking about the allocation of money – but also of time.

Optimal class size

As for class size, that would also be organically determined by the free market. Different subjects require different sizes of class. So do different teachers and students. When people are different, forcing uniformity can only lead to failure.

Therefore, a student’s and teacher’s ability to influence their class size is vital. It shouldn’t be decided based on an arbitrary whim of some central planner, but based on science and the wishes of those people who actually participate in these classes.

Students could seek to avoid over-crowded classes, and teachers could choose to work more or fewer hours based on the demand for their knowledge.

Or a small group of students could get together and pay a little more for the teacher to make time for a smaller group. Since the teacher’s time is divided between fewer students, the increased cost is justified by the increase in value provided. In a sense, the teaching is more expensive only insofar as it is more intensive.

Systemic changes in subject teaching

Should a particular subject have more demand than supply can handle, that would increase the wages of the teachers in that field, and induce other teachers who teach that subject to start working for the school, to alleviate the pressure.

If it turns out, after the relative proportions of students in different classes are no longer determined based on central planning, but on the free market’s interplay of supply and demand, that there is not a local, but a systemic lack of teachers in a particular field, then this would induce university students, and even school students, to value that particular teaching field more, and hence supply would, in time, catch up to demand.

Supply and demand are beautiful. Let’s not throw them away in favor of central planning, okay?

The Parents

Students don’t prevail in life based on their ability to know everything.

Specialization and the division of labor is what our economy is based on, and as such, there is little reason for students to spend years of their life studying subjects they will never need after school. Especially if they really don’t want to.

They can take introductory courses to acquaint themselves with the subject matter, and to figure out if it interests them. Or better yet, they can learn in their own spare time from books and the internet. But being locked for years into a curriculum they don’t want to study is asinine.

As such, when a parent pays for a public or private school, whether through taxation or directly, they are overpaying for a bunch of knowledge that the kid will never need.

Also a point – poorer parents could perhaps not afford to send their kid to a class of only 5 children. But they might be able to afford larger classes of 20.

So even though a libertarian school would have better teachers who might be more expensive, since the parents aren’t paying for a load of unnecessary subject matters, their costs might actually be lower.

And since parents pay the teachers directly, the teachers report to and are responsible to the parents and students. Not to the government. And not even to the school managers.

Parents don’t have to undertake political action to fire a teacher, they can simply withhold funding. This is direct democracy, is it not? Voting with money as direct feedback for teaching quality.

Moreover, the kind of initiative, responsibility, and organization skills children will be engaging in on a daily basis, when planning their own education and selecting their classes and teachers, will be exactly what they’ll need in their future lives.

An afterthought

Now I have been, throughout this article, assuming that the true purpose of a public school is to help students learn. That’s not the case.

Public schools, and many private schools (insofar as they use a set, public curriculum), are simply government indoctrination centers. The purpose of government schools is not to provide knowledge for all.

One might casually assume that public schools are as bad as they are because of incompetence. But that would underestimate the role malice plays in government decisions.

Governments hold the most power over ignorant and passive populations that can be bamboozled with propaganda; and not over well-educated people capable of incisive critical thinking.

It is thus no coincidence that government indoctrination prison camps for children result in a stifling of initiative, of a pulling down of curious-minded people to an average level of mediocrity, and in grouping together bullies and peaceful children.

By creating unthinking, conforming (or non-conforming in predetermined ways) children, they forment adults who go through life unaware and without critical thinking.

The purpose of a government school (or a private school with a government-mandated curriculum) is not to create bright young minds. It is to create dull, easily manipulable minds. Adults who are just smart enough to operate machinery, computers, and do service jobs, but just dumb enough not to realize their own slavery to a system of mafia government.

(And when students are forced to study subjects they don’t want to, they’re being prepared for mindless jobs that they, too, will hate but endure.)

But not all is lost

It is much easier to teach a child, free-by-nature, the philosophy of freedom; than it is to try and teach freedom to adults who have been tamed and saddled.

A free mind armed with a theory of freedom can never be enslaved. One which is broken in can seldom be freed.

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