An education in education


Having read his superlative The Beautiful Tree, I have been working my way through Professor James Tooley’s E.G. West: Economic Liberalism and the Role of Government in Education. Stunned also by E.G. West’s magnum opus, Education and the State, I was thus keen to read Professor Tooley’s analysis of the great man and his work. It did not disappoint. In thoughtfulness it put shame to my scribbles in the margins of my copy of Education and the State.

Although unknown to far too many people, E.G. West’s work was, and remains, groundbreaking in scope and depth. Using the lessons of public choice theory he convincingly explains how and why the state came to dominate schooling. The initial usurpations in the 19th Century can be broken down in to six stages:

  1. 1833 – The Committee of Council encouraged private schools to take money in exchange for being regulated.
  2. The Committee of Council then produced dubious statistics to argue that there were deficiencies in the population’s education
  3. Through the elaborate pupil-teacher system, the Committee of Council aligned teachers’ interests with those of the Council’s.
  4. Churches were restricted from helping the poor and strict building codes were introduced.
  5. 1870 – The Education Act set up the board school. This increased the domain and influence of the Department of Education.
  6. 1878 – Board schools given the right to supply deficiencies ahead of voluntary establishments, who were now ineligible for any subsidies.

It is important to note that most, if not all, of this happened without ill intent; yet it is still best explained by the self-interest of bureaucrats through public choice theory. Disturbingly, despite this increase in government expenditure, these policies lead to a decrease overall in spending on education. West calculated that by 1882, 27% of private investment had been crowded out by the state.

In light of West's and Tooley's works it is odd that so many people who are open to free markets in so many functions of the state are still remarkably statist with regards to education. It is not only that they fail to make the ‘leap of facts’ to support a system with no, or almost no, government intervention, they are even averse to anything that goes beyond the limited terrain of Friedman’s voucher system, despite all the state controls that would still be left in place. As such, I can do no more than suggest they read West and Tooley, required reading for anyone that requires an education in education.