In a way, The School Revolution: A New Answer For Our Broken Education System was inevitable. Ron Paul had to write a book about education, and that book had to be libertarian. It had to champion the values of homeschooling. And it had to sound like a revolutionary battle cry for better education. What makes this book so inevitable? It's simple really. If Ron Paul is right—and a lot of people think he is—then the two-party system is broken. So, a third-party candidate was bound to arise sooner or later.
It only makes sense that the leading third-party candidate in politics should author this text about education's oft-forgotten third party candidate. Homeschooling is to education as Ron Paul is to politics. Both are third party candidates, both are self-made entrants into their field, both are idealistic libertarians deeply devoted to strong families and personal freedom, both spurn wasteful spending and bloated bureaucracy, both are champions of the free market, both are “long shots” who've performed surprisingly well, both favor social conservatism, and both have an absolutely fanatical following.
I'm no “Paulite” myself, so I'm not speaking as committed fan boy. If you were following politics in 2008 and 2012, you may have run into somebody from the Ron Paul fan base. There are some seriously committed Paulites out there. But no matter what you may think about the Paulite plan for fixing the political two-party system, it's still pretty safe to admit that the two-party system is broken. Pretty much everything in politics is broken. That's sort of how politics works. Neverminding that point, this book isn't about republicans and democrats. It's about the public school and private school—or should I say—it's about why those options aren't enough.
This book is a short read, with simple language, and a straight-forward non-academic tone. Paul aims this book at average Americans. And the aim is simple: he's promoting educational freedom. This educational freedom is not merely a matter of schools either. Educational freedom extends far beyond the schoolyard. In, Paul's words,
[i]n this book, I present a libertarian view of education, from kindergarten through high school and college. This is a major social arena, where rival views are at war. I am calling you to commit to one side or the other. . . . I will make the case that liberty in education is basic to liberty in every other area of life (pg. 7).
The introduction (pgs. vii-8) is basically an orientation into Paul's “big idea,” educational freedom. From there, the book divides into three major parts explaining how this big idea works.
In part 1, The Centrality of Education (9-56), Paul argues, across three chapters on liberty (ch.1), leadership (ch.2), and legacy (ch.3), that educational liberty is fundamental to the rest of liberty. According to Paul, liberty operates in tandem with responsibility and responsibility is cultivated through a good education. Students need a curriculum that empowers them to take responsibility for their own education (to teach themselves), for their own futures, and for their own lives.
This educational plan, according to the author, runs contrary to the “modern welfare state” so it needs freedom from the intrusive influence of the federal government. Such is to say, education requires freedom from federal funding (19). Years ago, this goal was too impractical for all but the wealthiest families. However, the internet has made home-based education affordable. If students are going to socialize and evolve into strong, independent, savvy, and free citizens, then they need an education that empowers them to handle great freedom. Students experiencing this brand of education can grow to reach the upper shelves of personal freedom, mature enough to handle the responsibilities that come with it.
In part 2, “A Strategy for Educational Reform,” (57-128) Paul lays out a libertarian-friendly plan of education. Key to his system is the role of funding. As the author asserts, “He who pays the piper calls the tune” (60). Paul's concern is that public schools are duty-bound to their federal and state funding. Speaking loosely (no stats provided) he suggests that the more money public schools receive, the worse their education seems to be. The curriculum at public schools, he argues, invariably reflects the political postures, the left-wing biases, and bloated bureaucracy we can expect from any institutional arm of “big government.”
Paul seems to believe that public school is fundamentally a socialist institution, albeit a “modest” concession that liberals and conservatives have generally agreed on. Private schools can fare a lot better than public schools, but they tend to be too expensive and still don't offer the degree of personal liberty and opportunity that homeschooling can provide. In Paul's reform plan, several distinctives set his curriculum apart from public and private schools. The key points in that plan are developed across Part 2 as four separate chapters: family based education (pg. 60-82); competition in education (83-95); self-instruction (96-107); and online education (108-128). Key to this system is individual families taking responsibility for the education of their children, utilizing educational resources from the free market (i.e., which he thinks generates better resources than a controlled market—i.e., only the “state-approved” textbooks). He also emphasizes self-instruction, suggesting persuasively, that the best classroom environment isn't a 25 to 1 student-teacher ratio, or even 8 to 1, or 3 to 1. The best student-teacher ratio is 1 to 0. Students have to be able to teach themselves, with increasing independence from teachers. Otherwise they won't be able to keep pace in the job market of the information-age. Crucial to this educational equation is the internet. The internet makes home-based education easier and cheaper than ever before. Homeschool students can mature faster, learn better, and launch farther into college—or even skip college entirely—testing out of their Bachelor's degree at the same time as their high school graduation—if they follow the Ron Paul curriculum.
In Part 3, Paul asks, what is “The Ideal School?” He answers with respect to three different viewpoints: “What Parents Want” (ch. 8, pgs. 135-146); “What Students Need” (ch. 9, pgs. 147-162); and “What Colleges Want” (ch. 10, pgs. 163-170). The sum of all this is “The Ron Paul Curriculum” (ch. 11, pgs. 171-190). In this chapter, he explains how his own brand of homeschool curriculum would address the needs of students and the interests of parents while holding colleges accountable to the free market. He explains his aims:
“My goal is to equip the student to be a good citizen, but more than this, to be a productive member of a society that is not fundamentally political. Greek society in 300 B.C. was overwhelmingly political. So was Roman society. But this was not true of the Hebrews; nor was it true of the early church. Of far greater importance were the family, the ecclesiastical hierarchy, economics, and land ownership.”
Paul makes little mention of religious matters apart from here. His point, however, doesn't seem to be religious. He's pointing past “big government” intervention, towards other institutional influences that help guide free markets (of ideas, education, culture, commerce, etc.).
As for the specifics of the “Ron Paul Curriculum” he makes several proposals including a central focus on leadership development (173). He also suggests a 4-track system: (1) social sciences and humanities; (2) natural science; (3) apprenticeship and local business; (4) and fine arts (pg. 175). Studies in Western Civilization (history class) would span two years instead of the typical one year and would train students better than “95 percent of all college graduates in the United States” (177). But he also adds some points about economics and libertarianism—as can be expected: “My curriculum will inoculate the student against keynesianism [the leading liberal economics theory] of the typical university. . . . [students] will have been given a thorough introduction to the libertarian principle of nonintervention” (180). You can peruse the Ron Paul Curriculum yourself here. At $250 a year, it's a bargain compared to other comprehensive homeschool programs (which typically run $500 or more). It is fair to note, thought, that his overt libertarian framing could be off-putting for parents who don't trust that ideology.
Paul follows this section with a concluding chapter reviewing the benefits of his home-school curriculum and calling the reader to join the revolution (190-207). He says, “You have the authority to veto the public school system inside the four walls of your home” (192). This veto power, he explains, is monetary power.
“[T]he most effective way to reform the tax-funded schools is for dedicated parents to remove their children from those schools. The only way to persuade a senior bureaucrat to reform his bureaucracy is to reduce its funding. Every time a child is removed from a local school, the district loses state funding.” (196)
And so Ron Paul, unsurprisingly, brings it back to the simple, practical, and revolutionary use of basic economics.
How do we evaluate all this? Does this book measure up? Or is it just an elaborate marketing pitch for his product? The short answer to both questions is, yes. The book measures up, and it is a marketing pitch for his product.
Remember, Paul is not bashful about the economic side of things. He's not embarrassed about making money, trying to make money, or charging a fair price for his products. He doesn't see money-making as evidence of selfishness or greed. He's clear about his self-interests. He wants to persuade people to agree with him, and he wants to sell his curriculum, make money, and educate an audience. All of these things, be believes, will make the world a better place. His self-interest isn't necessarily selfishness. He's just guarding the interests which he has the responsibility and the power to guard—his own interests. But he's not necessarily putting himself above others, or misplacing his values. Readers who understand this subtle but important distinction will better understand Paul argument. Those who don't make this distinction will have a hard time appreciating this book as anything more than a sales pitch.
Besides the marketing angle, this book is well worth reading for anyone interested in forecasting and preparing for the future of education. It is a thought-provoking, reasonably argued, and plausible case for revolutionizing the modern educational system. It offers principled critique of the current system together with evidence-based support for homeschool. Homeschool education is growing. Classroom education is morphing into online, flipped, and hybrid models. And savvy parents and students can save a lot of money, time, and energy by utilizing free-market options instead of just dropping students into the conventional brick-and-mortar bureaucratic school system. The system is broken, and we can help fix it.
The book does have some real drawbacks though. Ron Paul was a controversial figure during his presidential runs (2008, 2012). And his writing style lends a partisan tone to this book. Instead of hiding his political and economic biases, he broadcasts and builds on them. Readers who lean to the political left may find Paul too dismissive towards K-12 public education, too harsh towards colleges, and too abrasive when describing modern colleges as an “ideological meat-grinder” seeking to “persuade students” and “discriminate against” their conservative upbringing (168). Clearly Paul considers the average classroom to be too liberal, and too easily controlled by bureaucratic interests.
It would be too simplistic, however, to dismiss his arguments as partisan grandstanding or libertarian politicking. The core of his case is that parents can and should be proactive in assuring their students get the best overall education possible. That's not a partisan concept. Homeschool isn't strictly a conservative niche either. Ron Paul, remember, is not truly democrat or republican, he's libertarian. And both parties have libertarian streaks. Democrats tend to be social libertarians (gay rights, pro-choice, etc.) while Republicans tend to be economic libertarians (lower taxes, school choice, etc.).
Paul can, at times, appear too idealistic. That is, he can sound unrealistic. But he is keen enough to add some qualifiers tempering the glare on his glowing ideals. For one thing, he qualifies his argument by acknowledging a variety of college options besides the typical 4-year school. He promotes non-traditional college tracks, using community colleges, CLEP tests (testing out a college class), and online programs to shorten the four years to two, one, or zero years (finishing high school and college at age 18). (For more on this, check out our piece, 7 Ways to Earn College Credits While Still in High School).
The non-traditional model espoused by Paul saves money, and it enables students to start grad school early, or start a family and enter the working world at 20 or 21 years old. Fast-tracking the college route can reward students who have no interest in extending adolescence into their mid-20's, or even 30's if they do grad school. Moreover, Paul's plan can reduce the demand for student loans, thus liberating students to launch into adulthood with less debt-baggage weighing them down.
Paul also admits, realistically, that while most conventional colleges aren't worth the soaring tuition rate, he grants that “the top four dozen or so” colleges are still worth the money (166). It's not that their education is necessarily superior—maybe it is, maybe it isn't—but the name recognition and elite status can translate into competitive gains in elite fields.
Paul can however seem overzealous. His optimism seems more hopeful than sensible at times. He says, “there is no question where the United States is heading; away from tax-funded education and toward homeschooling . . . The free market is going to foreclose on tax-funded schools” (122; emphasis in original).
This claim isn't yet supported by the facts. Homeschooling is growing, but that doesn't necessarily indict public schooling. It could be drawing from private school populations, or there could be a boom in homeschooling and public schooling for independent reasons. Homeschooling only makes up about 3-4% of the school-age population. Combine that with the fact that private schooling has dropped from about 11.2 to 9.7 percent of the student population, and that means that public school students are around 86-87% of the school-age kids. Homeschool could continue to grow, drawing students who had no intention of going to public school anyway. Despite what Paul says, the homeschool revolution hasn't made a big dent in public school attendance. Things may change in the future, but we'll have to wait and see about that.
Another important caveat is that Paul aims his plan at about 20% of students (173). He's not targeting all students or even most students. Homeschooling just isn't a good fit for every home, and some students aren't responsible enough to handle it. This narrow targeting is a major concession given Paul's big bold accusations about the “liberal” public school system. However, this concession shows that he's balancing his idealism with realism. The practical idea seems to be that a third-party can sway the election without winning the majority influence. A significant minority can be enough to “keep the teams honest.” In this case, public and private schools can't afford to get lazy, taking student enrollment for granted. They have to sustain high-quality education, efficient budgeting, and an overall safe and healthy environment; otherwise they can lose students (and funding) when parents withdraw kids to teach them at home. When that “third-party option” can win-over 20% of students, public and private schools alike will feel the pinch. That third-party strategy can shake-up the educational market. For libertarians and free-market fans, a liberated educational market sounds like a fantasy land for learning. To non-libertarians and skeptics of the free-market, that land sounds like the Wild West.
Paul also anchors his idealism in reality by admitting that homeschooling—online learning specifically—suffers from an array of practical limitations. Homeschooling isn't utopia. It's not feasible for homeschool families to replicate the full resources of public schools or the expertise of their best teachers. He says, “in almost every area except activities, shop, laboratory work, and music, online education is better” (126). He phrases it positively, but those are a lot of areas that he overlooks. We can add cost comparisons to that list too. Public schools are still less expensive, for families, than private and homeschool alternatives. And real life situations can leave parents unable to homeschool, whether the parent has too little time, not enough money, too little confidence, or learning disabilities of their own. So even if Paul is generally correct in his critique of public schools, we have no great reason to expect public education to vanish anytime soon. All indicators suggest public schooling is here to stay.
But education is still changing and Paul has a plan. Or at least he says he does. His economic theory of education is like a splash of water to the face. It's fresh and vibrant. But it can be shocking if you were sleeping through your own educational theories. He might just be right about it too. But readers can make that judgment for themselves. His proposed curriculum is interesting, but I didn't find it to be as interesting as his libertarian theory of education.
This book is clearly partisan, but readers should be able to appreciate the insights and important critiques therein without committing to the libertarian party, or agreeing with his overall assessment of modern education. This book will prove rewarding to any reader who is open to the prospect of “freedom based” education. The plan laid out in this book is clearly a product of the “Ron Paul” brand, but it's not just that. It's libertarian in the sense that it details how parents can exercise their liberty to choose how their children should be educated. Again, I'm no Paulite myself but I have to give him credit for this book. It's a true “third-party” text, fully consistent with his libertarian principles of personal responsibility, individual liberty, and Austrian economics. And people from all parties should be able to draw some helpful insights into the future of education and their present options going forward.