A Libertarian Defense: Abolishing the Department of Education

Jonathan Plante
Activist, Contributing Author

As I mentioned in my article, “Libertarianism in the Election Year of 2016,” I am writing a series of articles which defend the libertarian positions mentioned in The Atlantic article “No, Not Gary Johnson.” In this series, I will provide the data I provided to those who showed me The Atlantic article in an attempt to persuade me that libertarian policies were unjustified and would cause economic turmoil.
In this particular article, I am providing data which describes why libertarians want to abolish the Department of Education. As Libertarians, we think it is very inefficient, and does not provide ‘quality education.’ In fact, when I started to defend the libertarian position on eliminating the Department of Education, they interjected and claimed that “The Department of Education sets standards that help provide children with quality education. We can’t abolish it!” But then I showed them data, in the order, below, that changed their mind.

I. Rapidly Increasing Expenditures and Stagnant Test Scores

Below is a graph from The Cato Institute that shows that: The Department of Education is very inefficient in terms of its expenditures; and that, contrary to popular belief, it does not provide quality education to K-12 students.


As can be seen from this graph, since 1970, the Department of Education’s expenditures, adjusted for inflation, have increased by approximately 375%, while K-12 test scores have remained stagnant. In fact, in reading and science, scores have fallen in recent years.

II. Consistent Enrollment but Rapidly Increasing Staff Trends

A rebuttal I received in return after showing this graph was “Well, the costs have increased because the number of students have increased, making the ratio of students to teachers higher, and therefore, making it impossible for test scores to increase.” Thankfully, the author from Cato, Neal McCluskey, also analyzed the enrollment data trends since 1970. Dr. McCluskey’s data shows quite the opposite of the rebuttal I received – very, very much the opposite, actually.


As can be seen from this graph, the enrollment of students (as a percentage) have stayed fairly consistent – with some decreases in the later 1980s and 1990s, and increases since 2000 – but the teaching staff has rapidly increased – especially since the 1990s!

This brings up an interesting question: Is the increase in teaching staff due to teachers or administrative staff? I wanted to bring this up, because it’s important to make the distinction. It also helps show why there should be more choice in schools. The answer I found showed that this increase in staff was in administrators, not teachers: The Brookings Institution did a study which discovered that the New York public school system had six thousand administrators, while the New York Catholic school system had a quarter of students in the public school system and only had thirty administrators. Moreover, The Baltimore Sun found that a county public school system had ten times the number of administrators that the Baltimore archdiocese school system had, for the same number of students.

The questions that I considered were as follows: “Shouldn’t a school system’s focus be on teaching, not administrating? If a private school system can work with fewer administrators, shouldn’t the public school system be able to do so? I believe that teachers are highly underpaid. Wouldn’t it be interesting to see how much more teachers could be paid if there weren’t so many administrators?”


From this data, it is evident that some school systems are inefficient in their staffing, and that these inefficiencies not only affect students’ test scores, but also limit teachers’ salaries and their ability to get hired. If we had more schooling options than just those in local public schools, a select number of charter schools, and private schools, the inefficiency could be decreased; therefore, students could receive better quality education, and teachers could get better salaries – efficient schools could pay higher salaries to teachers rather than providing it to an unnecessary number of administrators.

Now that I have explained why libertarians want to abolish the Department of Education, the remaining question only is how the libertarians want to fix education policy.

III. Libertarian Solution on Education

Not all libertarians agree on the right way to restructure education, so I can only provide my perspective. However, generally, most libertarians agree that either the market should control education or that it should be handled at the state level. Here are the reasons why these two schools of thought exist:

1. Market-based education: The free-market approach to education would provide students with more options than just public schools or a select number of local private schools. Clearly, given the data that I showed, above, the public school testing standards are not producing results.

Given the advances we have in sites such as Khan Academy, we could have education like that, and have competition among schools to provide the best education. Competition among schools encourages experimentation among schools to innovate more advanced ways of learning. This experimentation always leads to someone finding the best way to do something, which can then be followed by everyone else (in this case, all the other schools). Competition, by definition helps drive down costs; so, having competition among schools will also help drive down the costs of education – which is clearly needed, since the expenditures by the Department of Education have done nothing but increase over the past forty years.

Additionally, this would give students and their parents more options dependent on their needs, religion, and culture, and could give some intercity children – those who lack quality education, the most – more access to better education. Test scores need not be required, as they do not show the other important qualities – such as work ethic and creativity – of students that can drive innovation in public schools. To quote Friedrich von Hayek, from The Constitution of Liberty:

“A passionate desire for knowledge or an unusual combination of interests may be more important than the more visible gifts or any testable capacities; and a background of general knowledge and interests or a high esteem for knowledge produced by family environment often contributes more to achievement than natural capacity.”

This approach could help those parents who struggled to send their children private school, but still had pay the taxes that funded public education. Taxpayers pay approximately $150,000 per student for education, over the course of a K-12 education. This is an excessive amount to be paid not only by parents who are sending their children to private schools – so they are paying for school, twice – but also by parents who send their children to public school, only to receive subpar results.

2.Local and State Level Education: As I wrote in my previous article, “The Unconstitutionality of Federal Agencies,” Federal Agencies, such as the Department of Education, are a violation of Article I and Tenth Amendment. Since the Tenth Amendment states that all those powers not enumerated to the federal government will be conferred to the states or the people, this is where education should, constitutionally, be governed.

Other than its constitutionality, it also makes sense logically. The economy of Massachusetts is vastly different than that of Iowa, and so is that of Webster, MA than that of Boston, MA.

meme1Why should both states be subject to the same regulations issued by the Department of Education? Shouldn’t each state, or better yet, each town, set the standards for education? Shouldn’t parents have the right to choose where their children attend school, if the school meets the family’s cultural or religious needs? The answer I received from all those with whom I spoke about this topic said, “Oh, wow. That’s true. Yes, that makes sense.”

I actually want both, in a hybrid form, but I lean more towards the market-based education system. I not only value the experimentation that it could bring through competition among schools, but also fear that education run by the local and state governments could limit the freedom of choice just as much as the federal government currently does. This fear comes from a paragraph of John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty:

“A general State education is a mere contrivance for moulding people to be exactly like one another: and as the mould in which it casts them is that which pleases the predominant power in the government, whether this be a monarch, a priesthood, an aristocracy, or the majority of the existing generation in proportion as it is efficient and successful, it establishes a despotism over the mind, leading by natural tendency to one over the body. An education established and controlled by the State should only exist, if it exist at all, as one among many competition experiments, carried on for the purpose of example and stimulus, to keep the others up to a certain standard of excellence.”

IV. Conclusion

After showing people this data, explaining the libertarian positions, and describing some of the libertarian solutions, they were stunned at how inefficient and ineffective the Department of Education has been and still is, and how inefficient public schools are compared to private schools. These people told me that “I won the debate.” But, I assured them that I didn’t win anything. If anything, libertarianism, the voice of liberty, won the debate.

Even more satisfying for me, they realized that The Atlantic article misrepresented the libertarian position of abolishing the Department of Education. The article never explained why libertarians hold the positions they do. My data, however, did explain why. It made people understand why libertarians at their conclusions, and why these conclusions are ‘rational.’ I’m sure glad that some graphs and some philosophy helped that stigma change. I encourage fellow libertarians to use this data to achieve similar results.

Some people didn’t budge, but that’s fine with me. I made these people think twice, and question their current way of thinking. If anything, they agreed that the Department of Education is inefficient and, in its current form, does not provide quality education.

To those people reading this article who did not understand the libertarian position before: I hope that you now understand why we hold the position that we do.

That’s all I have for this topic. In my next article, I will talk about Social Security, and how I defended the libertarian position on that.

In liberty; and may freedom, always, ring.

J.W. Plante

Source For Graphs:   


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