Education Entrepreneurs Are the Only Ones Who Can Disrupt the Status Quo

Transforming entrenched systems and industries comes through disruptive innovation and entrepreneurship. Coined by Harvard Business School professor Clayton Christensen, disruptive innovation is the process by which new ideas and inventions create value and ultimately topple existing competitors. A visionary individual or group spots opportunity and develops new solutions that meet consumer demand faster, better, and more cheaply. This innovation improves our lives through efficiency and cost-effectiveness, allowing us to keep more of our hard-earned money with better service and satisfaction.

Independent and Innovative Education

It shouldn’t come as a surprise that most of the organizations I highlight in Unschooled are independently run. Disruptive innovation may originate with individual ingenuity, but it is fueled by consumer demand and value creation within the private sector. Not that the public sector hasn’t tried. Back in the 1960s and early 1970s, there was a surge of interest in reforming mass schooling from within. The Open Classroom movement emerged, encouraging less restrictive classrooms and more choice and freedom for students.

In Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, in 1967, the city’s public school system launched its Parkway Program, sometimes known as the “school without walls,” in which young people were able to select their own classes and learn throughout various spots across the city, including private businesses, museums, local universities, and public spaces. In 1970, the New York Times called the Parkway Program “one of the nation’s boldest experiments in public education,” noting that over ten thousand students applied for only five hundred available slots.

Any meaningful and lasting transformation in American education must come from the private sector.

Within a decade, though, momentum for programs like Parkway waned. New public education fads appeared and old ones faded. Ultimately, Parkway was reabsorbed into the larger school district, becoming indistinguishable from Philadelphia’s other public schools.

More recently, a fully self-directed district high school that I also write about in Unschooled was set to open this fall in Somerville, Massachusetts, a city just outside of Boston. Powderhouse Studios had everything going for it, including relief from onerous public schooling requirements under the state’s Innovative Schools legislation and a $10 million grant from XQ Super School, an organization co-founded by Laurene Powell Jobs, wife of the late Steve Jobs of Apple, Inc. After seven years of concessions and compromise by the school’s leaders, the city’s school committee ultimately voted unanimously this spring not to approve Powderhouse’s opening.

Private Sector Reforms

As much as many parents and educators would like to believe that meaningful reforms can occur within the mass compulsory schooling model, real education innovation occurs most successfully and enduringly through the private sector. Free from state curriculum requirements, standardized testing mandates, and restrictions on hiring and firing, private educational organizations are able to experiment and innovate, with parents as the key stakeholders to ensure accountability.

Many of these schools and organizations are tiny non-profit enterprises that serve a small group of children and are often financially inaccessible to many families. But disruptive innovation in education has the capacity to bring real change to the masses—if educators embrace an entrepreneurial, free-market mindset.

In his book, Conscious Capitalism: Liberating the Heroic Spirit of Business, Whole Foods co-founder John Mackey writes about his early days immersed in the left countercultural movement of the late-1960s and 1970s. He lived on a commune in Texas for two years and became active in the local food co-op movement.

Entrepreneurship and Capitalism

Mackey writes in the book’s introduction:

Politically, I drifted into progressivism (or liberalism or social democracy) and embraced the ideology that business and corporations were essentially evil because they selfishly sought only profits. In contrast to evil corporations, I believed that nonprofit organizations and government were “good,” because they altruistically worked for the public interest, not for profit.

The longer Mackey was part of the non-profit food co-op movement, the more disenchanted he became with its ideology. He writes:

I ultimately became disillusioned with the co-op movement because there seemed to be little room for entrepreneurial creativity; virtually every decision was politicized.

Discovering the power of free-market capitalism, Mackey was able to scale his vision for healthy food and a healthier planet in ways that small, local, non-profit food co-ops were unable to, leading many more people to have access to organic food and many more jobs created to provide that food.

Mackey writes about his path from progressive anti-capitalist to proud entrepreneur:

I learned that free enterprise, when combined with property rights, innovation, the rule of law, and constitutionally limited democratic government, results in societies that maximize social prosperity and establish conditions that promote human happiness and well-being—not just for the rich, but for the larger society, including the poor. I had become a businessperson and a capitalist, and I had discovered that business and capitalism, while not perfect, were both fundamentally good and ethical.

Education needs its own Whole Foods moment. It needs entrepreneurial innovators to move small, non-profit organizations into larger-scale, profitable enterprises that serve more families and students with better outcomes and lower costs. Now with Amazon’s acquisition of Whole Foods, the potential for greater accessibility at lower costs increases.

Seeds of an enterprising moment in education are beginning to sprout. Acton Academy is a low-cost, self-directed network of private schools, often operating on a hybrid homeschool model, that is expanding across the country by educators committed to entrepreneurship and educational creativity. In an article for Forbes, Bill Frezza describes Acton Academy’s potential to remake the educational landscape. He writes:

With the right program as a model, anyone who home schools his kids can operate an Acton Academy. And not just for his or her own children, but for a schoolhouse full of them. Run the numbers and you can even make a lucrative living while charging tuition well below than that of most conventional private schools.

Standardized Equals Restrictive

Similarly, the Academy of Thought and Industry is a for-profit network of schools that could trigger necessary disruption in education. Founder Michael Strong acknowledges the power of profit-driven free enterprise to create lasting educational change that is higher-quality, lower-cost, and ultimately scalable. He says:

Any time something is profitable, that is what makes it able to go to scale. The reason we have low-cost groceries now (compared to 100 years ago) is because it’s profitable to bring food to millions and millions of people.

Any meaningful and lasting transformation in American education must come from the private sector. Public schools have tried to innovate; yet compulsory mass schooling has become more restrictive, standardized, and all-consuming of American childhood than at any other time in our history. To enact real, scalable change in education—just as Whole Foods did with the organic food movement—entrepreneurial parents and educators will need to imagine and implement new models of learning. These models must be rooted in the time-tested principles of free-market capitalism, or what Mackey describes as

the heroic nature of business, its essential virtues, and its extraordinary potential to do more good for more people in a sustained manner than any other social or economic system ever invented by humankind.

Entrepreneurs can help to replace an obsolete schooling model of education with a new learning one fit for the innovation era. In fact, they may be the only ones who can move us from where we are to where we could be.

Listen to Kerry McDonald discuss unschooling with FEE president emeritus Lawrence Reed (12:00 mark):

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The ADHD Overdiagnosis Epidemic Is a Schooling Problem, Not a Child One

Childhood exuberance is now a liability. Behaviors that were once accepted as normal, even if mildly irritating to adults, are increasingly viewed as unacceptable and cause for medical intervention. High energy, lack of impulse control, inability to sit still and listen, lack of organizational skills, fidgeting, talking incessantly—these typical childhood qualities were widely tolerated until relatively recently. Today, children with these characteristics are being diagnosed with, and often medicated for, Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) at an astonishing rate.

Early Schooling Contributes to Increased Diagnoses

While ADHD may be a real and debilitating ailment for some, the startling upsurge in school-age children being labeled with and medicated for this disorder suggests that something else could be to blame. More research points to schooling, particularly early schooling, as a primary culprit in the ADHD diagnosis epidemic.

Over the last several decades, young people are spending more time in school and school-like activities than ever before. They are playing less and expected to do more at very young ages. When many of us were kids, kindergarten was mellow, playful, and short with few academic expectations. The youngest children are the ones most often caught in the ADHD medical dragnet.Now, 80 percent of teachers expect children to learn to read in kindergarten. It’s not the teachers’ fault. They are responding to national curriculum frameworks and standardized testing requirements that over the past two decades have made schooling more oppressive—particularly for young children.

The youngest children are the ones most often caught in the ADHD medical dragnet. Last fall, Harvard researchers found that early school enrollment was linked to significantly higher rates of ADHD diagnosis. In states with a September 1 school enrollment age cutoff, children who entered school after just turning five in August were 30 percent more likely to be diagnosed with ADHD than children born in September who were about to turn six. Immaturity, not pathology, was the real factor.

The ADHD Fallacy

Marilyn Wedge, author of A Disease Called Childhood: Why ADHD Became An American Epidemic, sounds the alarm on ADHD overdiagnosis. In a Time Magazine article called “The ADHD Fallacy,” she writes:

By nature, young children have a lot of energy. They are impulsive, physically active, have trouble sitting still, and don’t pay attention for very long. Their natural curiosity leads them to blurt out questions, oblivious in their excitement to interrupting others. Yet we expect five- and six-year-old children to sit still and pay attention in classrooms and contain their curiosity. If they don’t, we are quick to diagnose them with ADHD.

According to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the percent of very young children (ages two to five) who were diagnosed with ADHD increased by over 50 percent between 2007/2008 and 2011/2012. As of 2016, data show that 9.4 percent of all American children, or over six million kids, had been diagnosed with ADHD, and almost two-thirds of current ADHD-diagnosed children were taking medication for it. A March 2019 report on ADHD by Blue Cross and Blue Shield found that among commercially insured children of all ages, ADHD diagnosis rates increased 30 percent in just eight years.

While the symptoms of ADHD may be troublesome, looking first at the environment, rather than the child, may be an important step toward curbing the ADHD diagnosis epidemic. In his book, ADHD Does Not Exist, Dr. Richard Saul, a Chicago behavioral neurologist, explains that individuals diagnosed with ADHD either have external factors that exacerbate normal symptoms or have some other underlying condition that should be identified and treated. In the latter instance, he finds that once the underlying condition is discovered and treated, the ADHD symptoms usually disappear. In the former instance, changing the environment is a key step toward improvement. This is true for both children and adults with an ADHD diagnosis. Dr. Saul writes:

Like many children who act out because they are not challenged enough in the classroom, adults whose jobs or class work are not personally fulfilling or who don’t engage in a meaningful hobby will understandably become bored, depressed and distracted. In addition, today’s rising standards are pressuring children and adults to perform better and longer at school and at work.

An Environmental Mismatch

Addressing an environmental mismatch for ADHD-diagnosed adults could mean switching one’s job or field of study or pursuing a true passion. Maybe you’re an accountant who wants to be a carpenter or a nurse who wants to be an entrepreneur. For ADHD children, changing the environment could mean removing children from restrictive schooling altogether. As Boston College psychology professor Peter Gray writes:

What does it mean to have ADHD? Basically, it means failure to adapt to the conditions of standard schooling. Most diagnoses of ADHD originate with teachers’ observations.

Jennifer Walenski saw firsthand how transformative removing her ADHD-diagnosed child from standard schooling could be. She shares her family’s journey at The Bus Story and told me:

Our kids were actually in public school originally. Our son also was diagnosed with both ADHD and autism while he was in the school system. And they wanted to medicate him. But we said no. Then we took him and his sister out of school and began homeschooling them. Fast forward several years, he has absolutely no need at all for medication. He is just a normal boy who did not belong in that kind of environment. And most of us don’t. Think about it.

Walenski’s experience echoes that of other parents who removed their ADHD-diagnosed children from standard schooling. In an informal survey analysis, Gray discovered that when ADHD-labeled children left school for homeschooling, most of them no longer needed medication for ADHD symptoms. Their ADHD characteristics often remained but were no longer problematic outside of the conventional classroom.

Self-Directed Learning

Gray’s analysis also revealed that the ADHD-labeled young people who fared best outside of standard schooling were those who were able to learn in a more self-directed way. He found that the

few kids in this sample who were still on ADHD medications during homeschooling seemed to be primarily those whose homeschooling was structured by the parent and modeled after the education one would receive in a conventional school.

Replicating school-at-home can also replicate the problematic behaviors found at school, whereas moving toward unschooling, or self-directed education, can give young people the freedom to flourish.

Ending the ADHD overdiagnosis epidemic depends on a societal reality check where we no longer pathologize normal childhood behaviors. Much ADHD-labeling originates from forced schooling environments with learning and behavioral expectations that are developmentally inappropriate for many children. Freeing young people from restrictive schooling and allowing them to learn and grow through their own self-directed curiosity can lead to happier and healthier families and children.

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The Value of a Self-Directed Summer for Kids

It’s all over the news these days. Kids are stressed-out, not playing, and, most worrisome, experiencing sharp increases in depression and suicide.

Last month, a new paper published in the Journal of Abnormal Psychology revealed that adolescent mental health has deteriorated over the last decade, with soaring depression rates for young people ages 14 to 17. This month, a research paper published in JAMA Pediatrics found that between 2007 and 2015, the number of children and adolescents who visited hospital emergency rooms for suicidal thoughts and actions doubled. The average age of the suicidal child was 13. Dr. Gene Beresin, a psychiatrist at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston who was not involved with the study, told CNN in response to the new research. He said that

Kids are feeling more pressure to achieve, more pressure in school, and are more worried about making a living than in previous years.

So what can parents do?

Self-Directed Activities Reduce Stress

Childhood anxiety and depression can be linked to a high-pressure environment and not feeling in control of one’s life and circumstances. A recent survey by the Pew Research Center found that anxiety and depression are a major concern for teens and that academics are a top stressor. Parents can help to reduce this pressure-cooker environment by prioritizing self-directed activities over structured, school-like ones. Summertime can be a great place to start.

Rather than continuing a schooled schedule of structured camps, adult-led enrichment activities, and academic catch-up, parents can use summertime to grant their children true freedom and agency. Let them be kids, with wide open days to fill as they choose, pursuing their own interests.

But won’t they just play video games or stare at their smartphones all day? It’s possible that after such a programmed academic year, young people may need to decompress a bit. Video games may be something that kids gravitate toward initially, as they often provide a sense of control sorely lacking from many young people’s lives. Smartphones, social media, and other technologies are often vilified as exacerbating adolescent anxiety and depression—despite new research showing that this is not the case.

A key characteristic of a self-directed summer, though, is that if young people are given real freedom combined with the opportunity to explore and discover, they likely won’t languish long in front of a screen. Laura Kriegel and Jack Schott, who run Camp Stomping Ground, a fully self-directed summer camp in New York, confirm this. Unlike most summer camps, Camp Stomping Ground allows young people to be fully in control of their camp experience.

Many activities are offered, but nothing is required, and it is possible that kids could just lounge around on their phones the entire time. But it just doesn’t happen, say Laura and Jack. It’s hard to stay sedentary and alone, they say, when giant shaving cream wars are happening outside or interesting, optional classes are offered with dynamic camp counselors. According to Laura:

Stomping Ground offers choice-based programming that lets kids decide, try and quit. This autonomy and trust build more authentic relationships and empower kids to be their best selves.

Enrichment Activities Can Be Counterproductive

Autonomy and choice are central to a self-directed summer, in contrast to the control and regimentation that define so many children’s days all year round. Parents from all socio-economic backgrounds face mounting pressure to have their children’s summer days filled with structured, and often expensive, enrichment activities; but poorer parents may confront the most coercion.

In an effort to close the academic achievement gap between poor and affluent students and prevent alleged summer learning loss, school districts across the country increasingly offer full-day, academic summer programs for low-income students. The result, however, is that poorer children may have even fewer opportunities for play and self-direction than their wealthier peers.

To overcome this disparity, and to help prioritize self-directed summer play for low-income, urban children, Janice O’Donnell launched Providence PlayCorps in Rhode Island in 2014. As the longtime director of the Providence Children’s Museum, Janice lamented the loss of childhood free play she witnessed during her 30+ year career. To bring back play to urban neighborhoods, she implemented PlayCorps in public parks across the city. Kids can come and go as they wish to the designated parks that are staffed with young adults trained in play work.

Parents and children alike feel the increased pressure of academics and enrichment activities.

The facilitators, many of whom grew up in the city, are there if needed, but they know not to interfere with or direct the children’s play. Instead, they offer various materials and creative supplies, like cardboard boxes, scraps of cloth, tools and “junkyard” materials, balls and ropes, and so on, that the children can incorporate into their free play if they choose. PlayCorps has been so well-received that it is has expanded to include a self-directed after-school program during the school year, in addition to its summer program.

Parents and children alike feel the increased pressure of academics and enrichment activities. Parents want their children to succeed, and children don’t want to let their parents down. This race to the elusive top, however, is causing many young people to experience severe anxiety, depression, and hopelessness. These kids may be “succeeding,” but they’re miserable. Parents can take charge and halt this pattern of overwhelmed and over-scheduled children. They can begin by using summer as a launching pad to a freer, more self-directed, more play-filled, and happier life for their children and teens.

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Policing the Public Schools: How Schools Are Becoming Even More Like Prisons

In his book, Free To Learn, Boston College psychology professor Peter Gray makes the connection between school and prison. He writes: “Everyone who has ever been to school knows that school is prison, but almost nobody beyond school age says it is. It’s not polite.” It’s a prison in that young people are compelled to attend school by law, are unable to voluntarily leave, are told what to do and when, and are required to consume a standardized curriculum.

As if schooling was not already jail-like enough, adding armed police officers to the mix confirms the metaphor. In public schools across the country, police officers are increasingly present, costing taxpayers millions of dollars for a vague notion of safety. In fact, some estimates suggest that over two-thirds of high school students currently attend a school with a police officer on site.

Increased School Security

While some school districts, particularly urban ones, have had school safety officers present for a while now, concern about school shootings is driving an increase in numbers. Tennessee, for instance, is dedicating $50 million to put a police officer in every school, reaching beyond populated districts into rural communities. The Tennessee bill received bipartisan support and was signed into law by the governor this month, joining the ranks of other states that are implementing similar policies.

After the horrific Parkland school shooting in Florida last year that left 17 people dead, the state legislature mandated an armed guard in every public school. Nevermind that Parkland actually had an armed guard at its school who didn’t enter the school to engage the gunman during the shooting. He subsequently resigned.

Armed guards and police officers at schools are no guarantee of school safety and, in fact, may cause more harm than good. Northeastern University criminology professor James Alan Fox explains in his recent USA Today commentary: “Transforming schools into armed camps does more to elevate fear than alleviate it.” He adds that while school shootings are devastating, they are incredibly rare. “Although the sense of safety of schools has been shaken,” says Fox, “it is important not to view such occurrences as the ‘new normal,’ as some have suggested.”

Over-Criminalizing Students

Rather than deterring mass shootings, armed guards at schools often end up over-criminalizing students. Some studies have suggested that police presence at schools leads to more arrests for non-violent crimes and does not improve student behavior. These arrests and other extreme disciplinary measures can thrust children into the criminal justice system at a very early age, helping to fuel what is known as the “school-to-prison pipeline.” Often, it is poor and minority children who are fed into this pipeline by school personnel at startling rates and at young ages, making it difficult to ultimately escape the path to prison. In 2016, for example, 50,000 preschoolers were suspended or expelled from school, with black preschoolers expelled or suspended at twice the rate of their peers.

Prison-like schools may be just the latest factor prompting more parents to opt-out of public schools altogether. How similar to prison do schools need to become before it’s polite to call them what they really are?An article in this week’s Seattle Times explains that more black families in the Seattle area are choosing to homeschool their children, at least partly due to the over-criminalization of black children in Seattle schools, where they are six times more likely to be expelled than white children. Other areas are seeing similar upsurges in homeschooling.

In Tennessee, the most recent state to pass the universal school police officer law, public school enrollment rose by less than 1 percent between 2012 and 2017. According to data I obtained from the Tennessee Department of Education, the number of homeschoolers nearly doubled during that same time frame, from 4,614 homeschoolers in 2012 to 8,843 in 2017.

Parents may be increasingly choosing education freedom over force for their children. That is, when they can choose. In their just-released study, Corey DeAngelis and Martin Lueken find that school choice improves school safety. They write: “We find that private and public charter school leaders tend to be more likely to report ‘never’ having safety problems at their schools than traditional public school leaders.” Providing more choice mechanisms that enable parents to opt-out of assigned district schools could ensure school safety better than armed guards and locked classrooms.

How similar to prison do schools need to become before it’s polite to call them what they really are?

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Compulsory Schooling Laws Aren’t Progressive, They’re Inhumane

Someone asked me recently if I could wave a magic wand and do one thing to improve American education what would it be. Without hesitation, I replied: Eliminate state compulsory schooling statutes. Stripping the state of its power to define and control education under a legal threat of force is a necessary step in pursuit of education freedom and parental empowerment.

Some argue that compulsory schooling laws are no big deal. After all, they say, private schooling and homeschooling are legal in all 50 states, so state control of education is limited. While it’s true that some parents may have access to government schooling alternatives, many states require private schools to receive authorization in order to operate. Despite ongoing efforts to expand education choice mechanisms, most parents have no choice but to send their child to an assigned district school.Homeschoolers in most states must comply with state or local reporting mandates that in some areas require homeschoolers to take standardized tests or meet state-determined curriculum requirements.

These hoops are for those lucky enough to jump out of compulsory mass schooling. Despite ongoing efforts to expand education choice mechanisms, like Education Savings Accounts (ESAs), vouchers, and tax-credit scholarship programs, most parents have no choice but to send their child to an assigned district school. Even if their child is being relentlessly bullied, even if they don’t feel that the academic environment is rigorous enough, even if they may personally disagree with some of the district’s ideological underpinnings—these parents are required by law to send their child to the appointed public school.

And what if they don’t?

Truancy and Neglectful Parenting

Truancy laws, which originate from a state’s compulsory schooling statutes, grant the full power of the state to come after parents whose children may have spotty attendance records. An in-depth article in HuffPost recently revealed the damaging impact these laws can have on families and children, with parents being pulled out of their homes in handcuffs and sent to jail.

For Cheree Peoples, one of the parents spotlighted in the article whose daughter misses school frequently due to sickle cell anemia that frequently leaves her hospitalized and in pain, enforcement of these truancy laws has been extreme, adding to the stress of her already difficult life caring for a chronically ill child. Awakened in the early hours by police officers who arrested her for truancy, she told the HuffPost: “You would swear I had killed somebody.”

The HuffPost investigation revealed that Democratic presidential candidate Kamala Harris was responsible for much of the heightened aggression toward parents regarding truancy. As California’s attorney general, Harris was a crusader against truancy and was instrumental in toughening criminal prosecution of parents whose children missed too much school. According to HuffPost:

Harris’ innovation was that school authorities and the district attorney would work in concert, articulating the threat of prosecution much earlier in the process and keeping school officials involved long after a case was transferred to court.

Harris held firm to her belief that neglectful parenting was the root cause of truancy, ignoring other potential explanations like lack of education choice for parents whose children may be suffering in their assigned district school. Harris’s actions to aggressively prosecute parents for truancy “were cementing the idea that parents always were the ultimate source of the problem.”

This is all so familiar. Harris, who billed herself as a “progressive prosecutor” for California, likely believed she was doing the right thing for children, saving them from their allegedly neglectful parents. Horace Mann, the “father of American public education” who is credited with helping to usher in the country’s first compulsory schooling statute in Massachusetts in 1852, also considered himself a progressive. At the time, Massachusetts was experiencing a massive immigration wave that, some lawmakers believed, threatened the current social fabric.

The History of Compulsory Schooling Laws

Indeed, between 1820 and 1840, Boston’s population more than doubled, and most of these newcomers were poor Irish Catholic immigrants escaping Ireland’s deadly potato famine. They challenged the dominant Anglo-Saxon Protestant norms of the time, prompting many state leaders to lobby for a new compulsory schooling statute that would mandate children’s attendance in state-controlled public schools. It was for the children’s own good, they said. As William Swan, editor of The Massachusetts Teacher wrote in 1851, just before the first compulsory schooling law was passed:

Nothing can operate effectually here but stringent legislation, thoroughly carried out by an efficient police; the children must be gathered up and forced into school, and those who resist or impede this plan, whether parents or priests, must be held accountable and punished.

Prior to the 1852 compulsory schooling law, compulsory education laws were common throughout the country. Massachusetts again led the way, passing its first compulsory education laws in 1642 and 1647, respectively. These education laws differed fundamentally from compulsory schooling laws. The education laws indicated a state interest in an educated citizenry and compelled cities and towns of a certain size to hire a teacher and/or open and operate a grammar school. It was the town that was compelled to offer schooling, not the parents to send their children there.

This is a significant distinction. A state arguably has the authority to require its cities and towns to provide certain services, but compelling parents to partake of these services under a legal threat of force—as the 1852 compulsory schooling law ultimately did—crosses the line. As the HuffPost article makes abundantly clear, parents, particularly those who are disadvantaged, continue to bear the brunt of these archaic and deeply flawed compulsory schooling laws.

The Solution

The first step to restore education freedom and empower parents with choice and opportunity for their children is to eliminate compulsory schooling laws that authorize state control of education. States could still require cities and towns to provide public schools to those who want them, but the power to compel parents to send their children there would disappear. In its place, a decentralized network of educational opportunities (including, but not limited to, various types of schooling) would unfold, fueled by visionary parents, educators, and entrepreneurs.

Parents, not the state, would decide how and where their children are educated. New possibilities for education innovation would emerge as the shadow of forced schooling waned. Education freedom begins when government compulsion ends.

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“Meatless Mondays” and the Rise of Social-Emotional Learning in Schools

One of our favorite family poems is Shel Silverstein’s “Point Of View.” It’s witty without being preachy yet prompts the listener to more thoughtfully consider the act of meat-eating: “Thanksgiving dinner’s sad and thankless/ Christmas dinner’s dark and blue. /When you stop and try to see it/ From the turkey’s point of view.”

Reading this poem reinforces the idea that eating meat or not eating meat is a personal choice, a lifestyle decision that may be rooted in one’s own sense of right and wrong. There are many social, cultural, and individual reasons why someone might be a carnivore or a vegetarian. It’s a private decision of the home and family.

Private Choice or Public Policy?

Except when it isn’t. New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio announced earlier this month that all New York City public schools would enact “Meatless Mondays,” avoiding any meat offerings during Monday school breakfasts and lunches beginning this fall. “Cutting back on meat a little will improve New Yorkers’ health and reduce greenhouse gas emissions,” de Blasio said in a statement. “We’re expanding Meatless Mondays to all public schools to keep our lunch and planet green for generations to come.”

The mayor acknowledges that vegetarianism is a personal choice. At a press conference announcing his new vegetarian agenda, he stated: “So, for me, this is very personal, because – and I will say up front, I eat meat and I eat vegetarian dishes and I try and strike a balance between the two. But I have two vegetarians in my home and they feel very strongly about this.”

Mayor de Blasio’s family members apparently feel very strongly about their personal choice to be vegetarians. Good for them. The issue is when someone’s personal preferences become public policy. The mayor explains in his speech that sometimes we need those philosopher-kings to guide the masses: “Sometimes it’s our elected officials who are the trailblazers and the visionaries.”

How about letting individuals and families make their own choices about what to eat? Should government officials really have the power to decide what you put into your own body?

There are, thankfully, ways around the Meatless Monday mandate. New York City parents can pack their own child’s meals, with meat if they choose. As I’ve written previously, these homemade lunches are a much healthier option for children than the USDA-issued variety. Parents can also opt-out of public schooling altogether, something more parents are doing in New York City and elsewhere to regain control over their children’s education.

Government Mandating Subjective Decisions

The Meatless Monday plan is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to government dictates on right and wrong, often using compulsory government schools to influence young people. Comprehensive sex education curriculum mandates in public schools continue to spark controversy, challenging various belief systems and family preferences. And the push to introduce “character education” into schools as a way to boost students’ moral compasses begs the question of whose moral compass will be used.

In a pluralistic society, state mandates on morality are inevitably contentious. A new report by Boston’s Pioneer Institute examines the growing impact of SEL, or the widespread emphasis on “social-emotional learning” in schools over academic content. Through various curricula and teaching methods, SEL initiatives can mold students’ perceptions of themselves and their world in a potentially narrow way.

Jane Robbins co-authored the study, called “Social Emotional Learning: K-12 Education as New-Age Nanny State.” She explains,

It’s one thing to direct your own moral, ethical, and emotional development or that of your children, but having a government vendor or unqualified public school officials implement an SEL curriculum based on coffee-table psychology is quite another.

Individuals and families should be the ones to determine their own values and moral worldviews, not government agents—often working through public schools—dictating good and bad.

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