An Apologia: In Defense of Public Education

This is a defense of public education. Much like Socrates, public education is on trial. And despite the defendant making an excellent defense, the judges may still convict as they convicted Socrates. Public education in America and the world over is under a relentless attack by neo-liberals, social conservatives and virtually all policymakers at the federal and state level. Educators at all levels perform their work in a hostile climate. They are under constant scrutiny and attack. Thus, educators and anyone concerned with public education should begin to understand the roots of this attack, how it came to be and what its central tenets are. Perhaps the most logical place to start is Milton and Rose Friedman’s work Free to Choose published in 1978. While Freidman was by no means the only critic who attacked education, nor was he the first, his influence cannot be overstated. Free to Choose is perhaps Freidman’s most succinct and direct work. Subsequently, in 1980, the book was turned into a 10 part mini-series which aired on PBS.

The attacks on education have primarily stemmed from neo-liberals and social conservatives [1]. Neo-liberals trace their intellectual heritage to eighteenth century liberalism and especially to the Scottish economist, Adam Smith [2]. Essentially, neo-liberals, like Smith, believe that if the market is allowed to function unimpeded, it can solve all societal phenomena. Neo-liberals call for little to no regulation of businesses, a dismantling of public institutions and their replacement with private, usually for-profit entities as well as little to no taxes. In addition, they rail against bureaucracies and unions because these are purported to hinder the efficiency of the market as well [3]. As such, the institution of public schooling is anathema to neo-liberals.

Over the last thirty years, the attacks on public education have followed similar patterns and revolve on common themes. Teachers are blamed; unions are chastised; public and government run institutions are said to be saddled with bureaucracy and waste; schools and teachers need to be held accountable and schools are bastions of atheism. In the 1970s, Friedman helped to lay the foundation from these patterns and themes which had been brewing for two decades [4]. These charges have colored the public’s view of education, and policymakers’ treatment of public education. Educators who seek to defend public education should start by understanding Friedman’s criticisms. Freidman’s criticisms have done much to restructure public education – for the worse – over the last thirty years. To turn the tide, these criticisms must be refuted with valid claims, evidence and clear logic. That is what makes this a defense.

Friedman argued that public education in the United States is a socialist island in a free-market sea [5]. This one statement sheds much light on the current attack being waged against public education. It may suggest that its critics do not find fault with the outcomes of public education so much as what public education stands for. Public education is a socialist institution. It is supposed to be an equalizer among social classes and arbitrary classifications. It takes tax dollars and redistributes them for the sake of achieving this equality [6]. This one statement suggests that public education cannot be “fixed” in the eyes of neoliberals because it is socialist and, as such, a system that is inherently resistant to the free market and capitalism. These critics or reformers do not want to fix public education, they want to destroy it and create a system that is more amenable to the “free”market [7].

This is echoed in Freidman’s account of the genesis of public schooling in the United States during the early 19th century. Friedman argued that prior to the common school movement in the United States, a system of private schools was able to effectively service almost all of America’s youth, excluding African-Americans [8]. These schools were locally run by the community, churches or funded by wealthy patrons; there were also private tutors and even some schools for the poor. Overall, this patchwork system was effective; it was near universal. Around mid-century however, Freidman contends that public educators began to lobby their state legislators because they wanted to usurp control from parents [9]. Thus, with this powerful lobby, the common school movement was established which centralized school control at the state level, and transferred power from parents to professional educators [10].

For one, this supposedly “powerful lobby” of professional educators is a convenient fiction. Educators as a group (if they could be called that) were held in low esteem and generally not well paid [11]. In fact, Horace Mann, the activist largely responsible for the common school movement, only convinced the wealthy protestant citizens in his home state of Massachusetts to accept the common school on the grounds that it would help to “Americanize” the growing influx of immigrants [12]. In reality, Mann, like Thomas Jefferson and many of the founding fathers, sought to create a truly enlightened populace for the republic [13]. In addition, this supposed network of professional educators was not a coherent political lobby for the simple fact that all schools were then private and lacked any type of centralization.

Contrary to Freidman’s idealization of the early private school system in the United are the statements of Simkins and Robinson, two educational researchers. Robinson, who in his work The Academies of Virginia, 1776-1861 is actually sympathetic to the private education system in Virginia prior to the Civil War, along with Simkins, conceded that the private education system in Virginia could not reach all students. Receiving an education prior to the advent of public education in Virginia was heavily dependent on income. If one did not have money, one could typically not receive an education [14]. Freidman and other neo-liberals supposedly desire to transfer power back to parents and away from professional educators and the educational bureaucracy. The end goal of privatized education however is not the education of virtuous citizens, but the acquisition of profit, as well as the training of obedient workers and customers. The same criticism of the private education system in Virginia 200 years ago is just as relevant, if not more relevant today. Under a private system, the people who have money get an education; and the ones who do not have money do not get an education. There may be some honest reformers who ardently desire to wrest control away from educational bureaucracies and professional educators, but by and large the reform movement is being exposed as one giant profit grab.

The actual purpose of school was also contested by Friedman. He argued that education should only teach the basic requirements of literacy and arithmetic, only what is needed by a literate person to function in society [15]. He specifically challenged the notion that schools should teach social values. Considering the fact that the book was written in the late 1970s, this argument may be a result of the social upheaval of the 1960s and early 1970s. As Newfield points out, many neo-liberals and conservatives saw public education as a danger because it challenged the status quo which was built on racism, sexism and authoritarianism in the form of segregation, the denial of women’s equality and the war in Vietnam (which was another capitalist market grab). The upheaval of the 1960s was inspired in large part by the American public higher education system and frightened conservatives and neo-liberals [16]. Thus, they sought to curtail the revolutionary capability of public education [17]. This necessitated a shift away from the teaching of social values, (which are necessary for citizens in a democracy) to teaching more neutral and basic functions, such as reading, writing and arithmetic. Mostly though, education was supposed to augment capitalism and the global market by training students to be good consumers and pliant workers [18].

Freidman had nothing but disdain for college professors and policy advocates who argued for equality. He went so far as to argue that college professors, professional educators, union officials, bureaucrats in the government and educational systems and advocates in policy groups formed a new privileged class spewing equality and other ideas that will only impede the smooth functioning of the market [19]. He also claimed that the students from private higher education institutions graduated at much higher rates and proved to be better educated citizens. Likewise, students from public higher education systems, if they graduated at all, were not of the same caliber. This was because many students at public higher education institutions, in Freidman‘s view, simply went there for a free ride. Since higher education was cheap due to heavy subsidization by the state, they slacked off on the state’s dime. Students at private institutions by contrast, since they were paying in full for their education and got no help from the state, were more dedicated. In a telling statement, Freidman argued that education should be provided to everyone – who can afford it [20].

When framed in this light, the relentless attack against teachers, college professors, unions, public servants and public education takes on new meaning. Teachers and professors are degraded and stripped of power, as are union officials; state and federal spending on secondary and higher education has likewise dwindled. Again, as noted before, the attack may not be against the functioning or outcome of public education – but rather the institution itself. For Freidman and many later neo-liberals, the institution of public education is inherently flawed and can never be saved, only dismantled and replaced with a system of private, for-profit education. In almost all states however, education is a constitutional right which means that all citizens, regardless of income have a constitutional right to it. Making education a market good hinders the exercise of this constitutional right. But if students are no longer taught any type of social values such as equality, what will it matter? There will be no one to fight; all students will be neutralized by a brain dead curriculum and unable to articulate any type of defense.

Freidman invoked Thomas Jefferson multiple times throughout the work. He argued that America is built on the natural rights of citizens and specifically the ability to choose what makes us happy. This is undeniably true. Freidman, however, was limited in his interpretation of Jefferson. Jefferson above all else argued that an educated citizenry was the bedrock of any republican state. Further, the education had to be a liberal and humanist education specifically grounded in philosophy and history. This would allow students the ability to critique their leaders and hold them accountable. As Jefferson noted, the people are the guardians of liberty in a democracy and in order to perform this monumental task, they must be properly educated [21]. Contrary to Friedman and other neo-liberals, education had to teach social values for Jefferson because this was the only way to guard liberty and the democracy. Otherwise democracy would inevitably slide in to tyranny. As much recent testimony has made clear, the vision of education as a market good is failing. It is impotent and inequitable. Education must remain a public good and we must fight for it to remain so.


  • 1. This article only deals with neo-liberalism. Neo-liberal criticisms are mainly economic because they believe that public education impedes the functioning of the market. By contrast, social conservatives usually criticize public education on religious and moral grounds: they argue that it is atheist. For an excellent account on the different types of criticisms, see Stanley in Stanley, W. (2007). Critical pedagogy: Democratic realism, neoliberalism, conservatism, and a tragic sense of education.Critical pedagogy: Where are we now? Edited by Peter McLaren and Joe Kincheloe. New York, NY: Peter Lang.
  • 2. Fowler, F. (2009). Policy studies for educational leaders: An introduction. (3rd ed). New York, NY: Pearson.
  • 3. Fowler, 2009; Plant, R. (2010). The Neoliberal state. United Kingdom: Oxford University Press; Freidman
  • 4. Giroux, H. (2011). On criticalNew York, NY: Continuum; Hill, D. (2012). Immiseration capitalism, activism and education: Resistance, revolt and revenge .Journal for Critical Education Policy Studies, 10, 1-34.
  • 5. Friedman & Freidman, 1980
  • 6. Giroux, 2011; Hill, 2012; Johns, R., Morphet, E. & Alexander, K. (1983). The economics and financing of education. (4th ed). Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall.
  • 7. Giroux, 2011
  • 8. Friedman & Friedman, 1980
  • 9. Freidman & Freidman, 1980
  • 10.Freidman & Friedman, 1980
  • 11.Gutek, G. (1995). A history of the western educational experience. (2nd ed). Illinois: Waveland Press.
  • 12.Gutek, 1995; Jefferson, T. (2010). Notes on the state of Virginia. Introduction by Peter S. Onuf. New York, NY: Barnes and Noble Press.
  • 13.Gutek, 1995; Jefferson, 2010
  • 14.Robinson, D. (1977). The academies of Virginia 1776-1861. Richmond, VA: Dietz Press.
  • 15.Freidman & Freidman, 1980
  • 16.Giroux, 2011; Newfield, C. (2008). Unmaking the public university: The forty year assault onmiddle class. Quincy, MA: Harvard University Press.
  • 17.Giroux, 2011; Newfield, 2008
  • 18.Rhoads, R., & Torres, C. (2006). University, state and market: The political economy of globalization in the Americas. Palo Alto: Stanford Press; Slaughter, S., & Rhoades, G (2004). Academic capitalism and the new economy: Markets, state and higher education. Baltimore, MD: The Johns Hopkins University Press.
  • 19.Freidman & Freidman, 1980
  • 20.Freidman & Freidman, 1980
  • 21.Jefferson, 2010