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Who should be responsible for your child’s education: you, or the government? It’s a debate that has been raging for centuries, but it is only recently that government control of education has become so intrusive as to inspire real backlash. The alternative education movement in America has been around for decades, but these days it seems to really be picking up steam, and it is not a stretch to attribute at least some of its rise in popularity to the ever-lengthening arm of the government education bureaucracy.
The history of government control of education in the United States is a long and complex one, beginning with the adoption of compulsory schooling laws in the late 19th century. Before that, most children were taught by their parents, in voluntary community schoolhouses, or by the church. Libertarian economist Murray Rothbard offers a quick summary of how compulsory schooling came to be standard practice in America:
In 1850, all the states had public schools, but only Massachusetts and Connecticut were imposing compulsion. The movement for compulsory schooling conquered all of America in the late nineteenth century. Massachusetts began the parade, and the other states all followed, mainly in the 1870s and 1880s. By 1900, almost every state was enforcing compulsory attendance.
At the time, this appears to have been a relatively uncontroversial step, but it proved to be only the beginning. The Constitution notably omits educations from the enumerated powers designated to the federal government, meaning that under the Tenth Amendment the government’s powers of regulating education should be limited to the individual states. All this changed in the 1970s with the establishment of the federal Department of Education, a flagrantly unconstitutional move that has somehow been allowed to stand by the courts.