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An essay in response to the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle’s Special Report on Rescuing City Schools

232 years ago last week, the first modern Constitutional protection of individual rights for citizens in North America was drafted by George Mason into the Virginia Declaration of Rights. The Virginia Declaration was the major influence on Jefferson’s penning of the Declaration of Independence, affirming man’s natural rights to life, liberty, and property. Among these rights was the right for men to rebel against “inadequate” government.

Rebellion was not necessarily a call to arms. But as governments are allegedly created for the common benefit, protection, and security of its people, those who have delegated the incredible powers of coercion to this institution not only have a right, but an obligation to reform or alter the government (or even abolish it), if it is delinquent in its basic duties.

In short, the Framers had an intense respect for the right to escape oppression. The Constitution’s author, James Madison, saw that state sovereignty was the only protection against federal government abuse. He assured in Federalist #45 that, “The powers delegated by the proposed Constitution to the federal government are few and defined. Those which are to remain in the State governments are numerous and indefinite.”

Indeed, it is little known that in Madison’s Virginia (and nearly in Hamilton’s New York) the right to withdraw from the Union was made explicit in its ratification of the Constitution. That Congress accepted Virginia as the 10th state while claiming this right indicates such a right is consistent with the spirit and letter of the Constitution.

The respect for this, and other, rights was so strong that many of the Framers were skeptical of enumerating a Bill of Rights, out of an intense fear that any rights not explicitly emblazoned in such a document would thereafter erode. Alexander Hamilton (himself no bastion of rugged individualism) even said in Federalist #84, “For why declare that things shall not be done which there is no power to do? Why, for instance, should it be said that the liberty of the press shall not be restrained, when no power is given by which restrictions may be imposed?”

America’s public education system – and Rochester’s in particular – has confirmed the worst fears of the Framers. Public school systems are every much a governmental institution as the Federal government the Framers were speaking directly about. They have the power to levy taxes (at the point of a gun), set standards, hire employees, and more. The Democrat and Chronicle’s recent series on public schooling trenchantly demonstrates that this government institution has abjectly failed in achieving its major objectives.

Our public schools have clearly violated all three of man’s natural (and inalienable) rights. They aggress against property by coercing Rochester families into being among the most heavily taxed in the nation. They aggress against liberty and self-determination by making it extraordinarily difficult for families and children to escape the system. And we are learning that they even threaten the very safety and lives of the students they are supposed to be teaching.

The outrage at any private organization guilty of similar offenses would be palpable – and such an organization would quickly go extinct. Citizens are accustomed to escaping oppression in nearly every other aspect of their lives: Oppressed spouses have the right to flee, with the legal system of divorce and courts to support them; Members of congregations that disagree with their pastor or other parishioners are free to join another parish, start their own, or even to eschew religion altogether (in Colonial times, dissatisfied church members who did not attend regular services were publicly whipped, and non-Christians were hanged, such as the Quakers in Maryland in the 17th century); We regularly patronize different businesses in our commercial lives based on differing prices and quality of service – and we even have legal recourse against companies that commit fraud or place us in harm’s way.

Despite its failure to serve the common interest, public school systems are not threatened with extinction, mass departures of customers, or even legal recourse. No, instead they are showered with ever more resources and proposals that would have them resemble prisons more than schools. This is due in no small part to the power of the entrenched and entitled teachers’ unions and educational bureaucracy.

Considering the traditional animus the public school establishment has toward educational freedom, it might surprise Rochester’s politicians and taxpayers that 37.5 percent of Rochester’s public school teachers choose private schooling options for their own children. According to these findings by a Thomas Fordham Institute study, Rochester public school teacher use of private schooling alternatives outpaces the use of private schooling by all Rochester families by the largest margin out of the 50 largest American cities.

Regardless of the reason, a school that is voluntarily chosen is revealed to be better by the very nature of the choice of a family that selects it – the same way that any business patronized, religious affiliation pursued, or any other voluntary choice that is made.

The right to exit is the ultimate protection individuals have against tyranny in almost every aspect of their lives. Yet when it comes to education, the city of Rochester, the state of New York, and the public schooling establishment treats individuals worse than criminals – for not only are we unable to throw off the yoke of a failing public school system, we are charged exorbitantly for the privilege of remaining incarcerated in that system. Americans have both a right, and a rich tradition, of doing away with inadequate government. It is time for Rochester citizens to do away with the inadequate public education system. At a minimum, it is high time to introduce real competition and accountability into the system, or to empower people through, for example, the use of vouchers to escape it, just as they can other areas of their lives.

UPDATE: An edited version was published on June 4.

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