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Letters to Fritz

Marshall Fritz ("Fritz") is a good friend and strong intellectual sparring partner from the libertarian (both small and big "L") movement. During 1990-91, he was organizing and starting up a new school in Fresno, CA. We had many conversations and an extensive correspondence. It was through this interchange that my interest in primary and secondary education was aroused and also I met Dan Greenberg, one of the founders and, more than twenty-five years later, still keeper of the flame of the Sudbury Valley School. The first two essays here are letters to Marshal from this period, modestly edited. See also "Education of a Free People" for later versions of some of these ideas.

After a brief experience with his new school, Marshall took another tack towards educational reform by organizing a new group, Parents Prevail, dedicated to separation of school and State (a nice phrase), with the primary aim of permitting Christians (and others, as a result) to provide ideologically sound schooling for their children. The last of these essays is a letter written in reply to receiving a second draft of an article which he wrote on this subject for submission to Readers Digest.

 

September 23, 1990

 

Dear Marshall,

Thank you for the additional information on the "Academy of Self-Governors" and the audio tapes.

Since seeing you in San Francisco I have had a period to reflect on your overall proposal and would like to share some more of my thoughts with you. Basically, I think that you are on to a good thing but that it can stand considerable refinement; such refinement would probably increase both its chances for success and its intrinsic utility.

First, the name: Academy of Self-Governors is much too self important and at the same time suggests a place where one learns to repair steam engines. I think that you need a much simpler, more descriptive name. I would avoid an eponym (such as Montessori, Waldorf, etc.) and the term "Free School" unfortunately has a double meaning, the second unintended. But I would commend this problem to you: a good product name, as I am sure you know, is very important.

Second, I have thought through both my objections to your use of scrip (Scholar Dollars (SDs)) and the reasons that you probably favor it. Some comments on SDs follow:

1. The use of SDs to reward all academic achievement, sends the wrong message to the students: that is, in a market economy, every good has a monetary price. In actuality, many things happen in a free society without money changing hands: the plumber who I have to pay to get out of bed in the middle of the night to fix my broken water pipe can be seen on a Saturday morning painting the walls of his church as a volunteer.

I think that the cure for this problem is three-fold:

i) In your school, where attendance is voluntary, there should be some form of "social contract." That is, there should be a publicly recognized undertaking between the student and his/her parent(s) on one hand and the leadership and student body of the school on the other hand that the student is there to learn and that his/her continuing attendance is dependent upon maintaining this attitude and showing satisfactory achievement.

ii) Instead of auctioning slimy lizards (sic) (although everybody should have some fun!), reverse the auctions: make them a kind of labor exchange in which unpleasant (unwanted) tasks are awarded to the lowest bidder. This is probably necessary anyway, if the students are to have a major role in operating the school, as many jobs are unpleasant, monotonous, dirty, etc.

iii) Allow a certain portion of earned credits (see below) be withdrawn as real money. This then permits the effort put forward in the labor exchange to produce benefits for the students in the external community and makes your internal economy more real.

2. The problem with any sort of scrip, whether it is company script, Revolutionary "shin plasters," Civil War era Greenbacks or present Federal Reserve notes, is that they have no intrinsic value and thus do not come to be respected as a repository of value. You tried, listening to your 19th. cen. instincts, to replace paper scrip with pseudo-coins. However, if you replace scrip with real money, but in electronic form, you can better realize your goals. It is clear that one of your concerns for using SDs is to prevent "real" money flowing into the school and producing demand/purchasing power imbalances. I suggest that you manage money the following way:

i) Create a money pool: recognize that you will need money for the internal economy, to purchase labor and for rewards for extra-ordinary conduct/achievement, and budget for it. Set aside a fixed portion of gross income for this purpose. This produces the reserve to finance your monetary system.

ii) Make all money within the school either electronic or in some odd form (such as Club Med's "pop beads" - which have a fixed rate of exchange). The former is more desirable, as it eliminates all problems of theft and associated difficulties.

iii) Permit an initial degree of exchangeability: that is, let the students withdraw a certain percent of their earnings each month, in "real" money and pay interest to their accounts, at competitive rates, on the retained portion. This might be returned upon school leaving or graduation: perhaps a sliding scale of "early leaving" penalty (proportionate forfeit) might be used to discourage early (premature) school leaving. Wouldn't it be nice if the students got a good primary and secondary education and then were able to go out into life or on to college with an accumulated nest egg? Might teach thrift and related virtues! Eventually, it might be possible to permit full "exchange-ability"; however there would still be a virtue in running a tax exempt savings union as a source of capital for the school.

Third, I think that you need to get parents involved much more in the school on a structural basis. Here are some suggestions:

1. Require that parents deposit a modest but real sum, perhaps $100, as a symbolic stake in the school. Place it in escrow and pay interest on it. You can pledge the escrow as collateral for loans for capital expenses for the school. The stake would be returned when the student leaves the school.

2. Establish, as many co-ops do, several classes of "membership": Parents who obligate to give so many hours per week in the school should receive a reduction in school fees. You might opt to do this on an hourly basis or by classes of service. (By the way, there should be a presumption, as part of the "social contract," that parents will, in all but extraordinary cases, make some base contribution of time to the school. What is being discussed here is obligation beyond this base, to deal with duties which the children cannot or are unwilling to undertake or which the parents, through maturity and experience, can better assume.)

Fourth, you may need to establish your schools as co-ops, in any case. Once the word gets out that children are being rewarded (paid, even in scrip) for achievement and for other tasks, the public service unions and the State department of child welfare will try to shut you down. By being a multi-family operated co-operative, you may be able to find solace and protection within the provisions of laws regulating employment of minors in family owned businesses.

Fifth, I think that your arguments are quite correct concerning education vouchers. However, I think that you can be more sophisticated, Grove City notwithstanding, and distinguish between them and some sorts of State payments to individuals which may not produce unacceptable State control. The "other" Golden Rule is not absolute. So long as we are within the Welfare State, we might as well use their funds to good purpose: consider it a form of recycling. Criteria should be established so as to avoid State intrusion and control; you might wish to discuss this with a lawyer. For instance, I think that it might be possible to make beneficial use of Food Stamps.

Finally, I am more and more concerned with governance. One of the most frustrating things for both students and parents in the State school system is the feeling of powerlessness which leads to both juvenile and adult misbehavior. Furthermore, as I said in my last letter, for a free market system to work, all the players must be free; that is, autonomous and self-governing. You haven't said much about how your schools would be organized and governed; I'd very much appreciate hearing about this, in regards both to prospective organization and to dealing with rule infractions. I think that it is central to both the schools' hoped for success and to maintaining order in what will, of necessity, be a complex and free-form social setting.

Best regards,

Sincerely,

 

 

January 15, 1991

 

Dear Marshall,

Thank you very much for persuading me to take part in your 'phone conference on "scholar dollars" a.k.a. server option(?). I found it a very stimulating experience which i) reinforced my belief in the points I have made in my letters to you of July 11* and September 23 and ii) renewed my interest in "doing something in education" in my next avatar (whenever that may be).

There is an additional point which came to me last night which I did not articulate fully: I have previously come to accept the theory of evolution, not because I am convinced by the historical physical evidence, but because of the contemporary evidence that it works in a fundamental way, much like the law of gravitation. Thus, if objects have mass, they are mutually attracted and if traits favoring survival to breeding age are inheritable, they become dominant in a species. (Parenthetical note: Cause and effect are blurred here: We say that objects without electrical charge which are attracted have mass; we also perceive that many inheritable traits positively affect survival and/or breeding success.)

But this is not the point: The point is that I have come to recognize that, due to some quirk (or fundamental design feature) in human nature, the function of Adam Smith's "invisible hand," as we understand it, is, in the most general sense, an absolute law. That is to say, pursuit of perceived self-interest by human individuals (in the face of protection of the ability of all other individuals to so) serves the species best, full stop. All other behavior models are less successful.

I have often spoken of a free market in ideas, viewing it as an extension of an economic free market. I now think that the "invisible hand" principle is far more general in its impact and is simply an expression of the social equivalent of the "survival of the fittest" principle which drives evolution. It is a credit to both systems, the social evolutionary system and the biological evolutionary system, that they are robust enough to function despite the fetters which the State and well-meaning individuals place upon them.

In the context of our discussions concerning education, there is no reason to believe that there is or should be an "age of sovereignty," akin to the "age of consent" (which is itself loosely related to the events of puberty), at which individuals can begin to play a role the operation of the invisible hand. On the contrary, we should as natural libertarians, recognize that individuals are born (rather than made) sovereign and there is no legitimate reason to restrict their individual ability to make choices in what they perceive as their best self-interest.

However, it is reasonable to recognize that a young (that is, in-experienced, naive, young in the ways of the world) person may lack knowledge of the reasonably expected outcomes of choices (e.g., that placing a hand in a fire will produce a painful burn) and it is reasonable to act to protect such individuals, based on their apparent level of experience (rather than on chronological age) from the more adverse consequences of their choices while minimizing consequent limitations of sovereignty (thus, place a fire screen between the baby and the fireplace but let the same baby learn, by supervised experience, that a candle flame may be painful). In a sense, this is what the Montessori Method tries to do with its emphasis on a "prepared environment". However, I reject the Montessori approach as a valid educational environment, other than as an alternative to a State school. It eliminates the student's best educational asset, the more experienced individual who can serve as a teacher ad mentor (since the Montessori teacher is more observer than instructor) and, through its emphasis on forethought, observation and environmental adjustment, it insulates the student from the "real world" (thus raising legitimate questions about the relevance of the various tasks permitted).

Therefore, in light of this insight, I suggest that the fundamental principles to guide your developing program should be:

1. Absolute dedication to a true free market (in the broad societal sense, not as embodied in game playing).

2. Modification of principle #1 only as absolutely necessary to take account of individual lack of practical experience, so as to maximize opportunity for choice (enable access rather than guarantee outcome!) by minimizing opportunity for permanent, choice-limiting in-jury.

In other words, empower and trust!

Sincerely,

 

 

February 12, 1994

 

Dear Marshall,

When I received the first draft of "Parents Prevail: How to Stop Damaging Our Children in the Quest of the Common American," my first response was that it was a shame that we live on opposite coasts so that, when you get such an idea, we are unable to repair to the neighborhood watering hole and talk and drink each other into insensibility before you commit writing and I am stimulated to do likewise in reply. The draft sat on the end table by my favorite reading chair until today when I was determined to provide a reasoned response, but you forestalled me with a second version.

I have now read this one and my immediate reaction is that you are like a near sighted art lover at an exhibition of impressionist paintings: because you stand too close to the canvas, you see only blotches of color and the texture of brush strokes, missing the overall intended pattern. More specifically, many of the dichotomies you try to create, between Far-left Jones and Far-right Smith, between traditionalist Christian parent and modernist educator, between pursuit of success and pursuit of excellence, are unrealistic extremes on what are continuous spectra. What is necessary is to respect the existence of such relationships and realize the need for flexibility in determining one's instantaneous position in any one. For example, success is usually the reward for excellence but it is no use if you starve to death waiting for it. Thus it is desirable to be as excellent as possible while still being sufficiently successful to survive, have a degree of personal freedom and the wherewithal to meet one's obligations and commitments.

Let me go straight to the issue: I have no problem with the State operating "common" schools nor do I think that the cure for such a terrible situation, in which the State operates such schools, is separation of State and school. This sounds like a paradox or contradiction, but, if you stood further back, you would see that the problem is simple coercion: If there was genuine free choice by parents in selecting schooling for their dependent children, unimpeded by barriers of mandatory attendance laws and confiscatory taxation, then each would chose according to the measure of their values: Statists might well desire State run schools for their children and I see nothing wrong with that, so long as I am not taxed to support the folly of their preference. And the market is not always totally efficient: There may be a role for State "missionary" schools in areas in which the "ore" is too poor for commercial, that is, free market, exploitation, since the State (that is, the collective we) has a legitimate desire that no child grow up without access to our culture and to the idea of values, beyond what is gotten from TV and the National Enquirer.

I think that one can argue that the State has three valid roles in education (see also my essay "Education for a Free People"):

1) It is appropriate for the State to conduct education necessary to its' other missions. Thus, if the State, by consent of the governed, maintains an army or a police force, it is appropriate that it maintain academies to train candidates and to provide continuing education for serving personnel. It is not appropriate, though, to make attendance at such institutions prerequisites for service: eligibility for service should be based upon the candidate meeting objective standards directly related to the requirements of such service.

2) It is also appropriate that the State establish quantitative educational norms as prerequisites for access to privileges (not rights) of citizenship. Thus, I have no problem with a State directed examination as a prerequisite for nationalization or the granting of voting privileges to the native born. It is no different than a driver's license examination: how much more important, in the long run, is it that citizens be qualified voters than they be qualified drivers! The State Regent's Examination systems which used to be prevalent in California and New York are examples of such examinations, although not used for such purposes. Outstanding grades in such examinations are far more important than a high school or other diploma: I would go further and permit admission to such examinations without any showing of formal education on the part of the candidate.

3) Finally, it is vital the State protect the "Bill of Rights" rights of citizens. One way to do this is to conduct a continuing public propaganda (education) campaign to explain and support the Bill of Rights. If the State is comfortable with promoting wilderness fire safety and condom use, it should have no compunctions about promoting freedom of worship and the right to bear arms.

Before passing on to short answers to the nine questions you raise in closing, let me disabuse you, let me knock down the straw man whom you erect in arguing that receiving conflicting and contradictory information from parents, whom they love, and teachers, whom they trust, is bad for children.

In our home, as soon as the children where old enough to sit at the dinner table, we established the rule that what was said there was privileged; that is, that we had views which we shared only within the family and that there was no reason for those to conform with external (State school promulgated) ones. In fact, much of Toni and my efforts there went to correcting inappropriate views of history and economics. However, the much more important hidden message, which all three of ours got on to very quickly, was: Question authority, think for yourself and make up your own mind. (We would occasionally, just for mental exercise, try to argue both sides of a question about which our collective minds were already made up.) They also very quickly grasped the need to "play the game" in the State school so as to acquire the credentials necessary for access to society, while looking elsewhere for enlightenment. Our children, now young people respect authority of knowledge, as do we, but tend to instinctively distrust authority of position. To say that we were always true to this policy would be an exaggeration but, like any good internalized moral code, it was the line we attempted to hew to. Our young ones grew up quite nicely; how are yours doing? Can you think of a better preparation for citizenship in a free society? And why should one necessarily trust a person one loves (or vice versa)?

And now to the questions and answers: You raised these questions (in italics below) at the end of your article as issues to be dealt with if the much desired and sought for separation of school and State were to come about.

Q1: How will we guarantee that poor children have access to quality education?

A1: The problem would be solved primarily by the free market and secondarily by the freely given charity (in cash and kind) of the majority who are concerned about such issues. See also my previous comment about "missionary" schools.

Q2: How will teachers' pensions be protected?

A2: Why should teachers be different than anybody else? Pension rights are either vested or not; that is, this is one of the non-problems which is always proposed as a barrier to technological or social change. I suggest that many of today's perceived problems with State schools can be traced in part to monopoly practices such as too liberal contractual arrangements with teachers' unions, tenuring where none was required and too liberal pension and leave provisions - separation of school and State will remove these causes.

Q3: What about the children of parents who won't send them to school?

A3: Part 1: It is the moral duty of parents to see to their children's' education and has always been so. Many parents today already don't send their children to school but meet this requirement in other ways. It's time to decriminalize parenthood.

Part 2: See above; the establishment of and publicity about objective testing for many privileges of citizenship would be a potent incentive.

Q4: What about children of parents who have repugnant (to the majority) spirituality or ideology, ...?

A4: What's the matter, Marshall, haven't you heard about freedom of religion? The under text to your article is that secular education and moral instruction are, and have always been, inseparable. Overlooking this reality is probably the greatest error, among many, of the current State education system.

Q5: What about the valuable real estate and school buildings?

A5: Like any asset of the State, these belong to all of us and can be sold at auction, with the proceeds applied to other mutually agreed programs. Many people are very happy living in converted schools (such as the old high school in my home town which houses three floors of magnificent, light and airy, high ceiling apartments over a street level and cellar shopping mall) and there are many other commercial uses for such facilities. Some might even become schools!

Q6: What organizations will set up teacher credentialling?

A6: If teaching is a profession, then it should be standard setting and self-regulating, like the medical and legal professions. If not, then the answer is objective examination of skills and knowledge (but not credentials) related to the job sought, as in any other skilled employment situation. If tests are objective and uniform, it doesn't matter who administers them. We can test (and periodically re-qualify) airline pilots, why not teachers?

Q7: What sort of testing or accreditation will be available to inform parents about the qualities of the various schools?

A7: If you go to your local public or private library, the reference librarian will be happy to show you the many private (free market) publications which already do this for the vast majority of non-State schools at any level, including the so-called alternate schools. The difference is that these sources would become far more useful as data becomes available on the new schools which result from the abolition of coercive attendance at State schools which are themselves notoriously unwilling to provide reliable, objective, comparative information and self-evaluations.

Q8: Who chooses the curriculum?

A8: Who chooses the menu in a restaurant? Would you rather have a choice of restaurants or eat in the Army mess hall?

Q9: Will the tax-cut be as large as 1946, or even larger?

A9: Silly question: just look at you school related property tax bill and add on a proportioned cost of your State and the US Departments of Education: That's what the reduction should be, since the costs of the valid State roles in education (see above) are either already included elsewhere in public budgets or should be borne by user fees.

You end with: "Yes, Christians need to take back their schools to protect their children, but let other parents prevail to protect their children." Let me reverse your emphasis: "When all parents prevail in taking back schooling, then Christians, as all others of whatever belief, and their children, will surely benefit."

Keep their feet to the fire!

Sincerely,