Chicago Teachers’ Strike Reveals Forgotten US History: Government Isn’t Needed To Care For Kids

P. Gardner Goldsmith | October 21, 2019
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Thursday, October 17, saw news of yet another big teachers’ union strike, replete with angry, sign-wielding “educators” and fawning CNN coverage for their noble sacrifice, all intended to bring “justice and equity” to what they describe as an “essential public good” -- that being government-run, taxpayer-funded schooling.

This time, the teachers striking are in Chicago, a city that in 2014 ranked third in the country for total district school spending, yet, according to, last year saw “nearly half” of its primary and secondary schools fail “to meet the state’s threshold for performance on its new accountability system, making some of them possible targets for state intervention.”

Chi-town’s strike fits the government-run pattern: inefficiency, illiteracy, groupthink, unhappy teachers, frustrated kids, and anguished parents – all the trappings of the government “public good”. But this time, there’s an uplifting twist. This time, thanks to the internet that sprouted from Al Gore’s rib, word is getting out about what happens in the private sphere when teachers go on strike.

It turns out, as was shown throughout half of US history before politicians insinuated themselves and their ideologies into “education”, there are plenty of educational alternatives to government-run schools.

Chicago exemplifies, likely to the dismay of the tax-hungry teachers, that the private market has stepped in, within hours of the teachers walking away.

As Kerry McDonald reports for the Foundation for Economic Education:

As the Chicago strike shows, when government schooling is not the centerpiece of a child’s life, community organizations step up to provide support and care. Museums, churches, libraries, and a multitude of civic non-profits are opening their doors to children displaced by the teachers’ strike, and public parks and playgrounds abound.

The YMCA has opened eleven locations around the city to welcome kids. Science organizations are offering programs for children, “area gyms are opening up and offering adult supervision”, and:

The Boys & Girls Club of Chicago, as well as a similar but separate organization, the Neighborhood Boys & Girls Club, are open all day for children affected by the strike. Many arts organizations throughout Chicago are offering special programming for students in a range of topics, from theatre to dance to visual art.

Why is this important? It has nothing to do with rubbing their expensive redundancy in the faces of tax-funded teachers – some of whom are likely worth much more than they get paid. It’s because this Chicago phenomenon is actually a strand in an unbroken rope that runs through American history. It shows us that economics and morality are linked and that the very arguments collectivists make in favor of their government-run, coercion-based, tax-funded school system are their own downfall.

We are told that compulsory government education (in the form of compulsory payment and compulsory attendance by kids) shows that “people care” about children. But this is self-defeating. If people “care” then why do they have to be forced to pay, and why do kids have to be forced to attend?

If people care, then no force is needed at all.

And that’s what is so wonderful about the news from Chicago. Not only is compulsion not needed, it never has been needed in US history. As Ms. McDonald writes:

Indeed, this is how education worked prior to the mid-nineteenth century passage of compulsory schooling laws that narrowed a broad definition of education into the singular concept of forced schooling.

To go into more depth, the legendary scholar Dr. Sam Blumenfeld’s extensive research on the subject shows that until the late-1800s, most Americans were educated privately, and the literacy level was numerically as high as it is today while the qualitative content of what was considered “literacy” was even higher.






As William Jasper wrote in 1986 about this American reality and Dr. Blumenfeld’s remarkable work:

When a small group of "reformers" in 1817 petitioned the Boston town meeting to extend the common schools to the primary level, a subcommittee was appointed, chaired by distinguished architect Charles Bulfinch, to survey the city's educational needs. The Bulfinch report, says education historian Samuel Blumenfeld, revealed that "an astonishing 96 percent of the town's children were attending school, and the 4 percent who did not, had charity schools to attend if their parents wanted them to. Thus there was no justification at all for the creation of a system of public primary schools, and Bulfinch reported as much to the School Committee, which accepted the sub-committee's recommendation" (Is Public Education Necessary? The Paradigm Company, 1981).

Mr. Jasper also notes some of the research by David Tyack and Elizabeth Hansot, in their book, “Managers of Public Virtue: Public School Leadership in America, 1820-1980”:

One sign of the effectiveness of the many forms of education in the United States was that Americans were among the most literate people in the world. In the 1840 census, about 90 percent of white adults were listed as literate. A recent study of a sample of the 1860 census shows that 94 percent of free males were literate, and among these the older men were only slightly less literate than the younger ones, indicating that instruction had been widespread even early in the nineteenth century.

Jasper adds:

…John Adams remarked in 1765, regarding our educational attainment: ‘[A] native of America who cannot read or write is as rare an appearance ... as a comet or an earthquake.’

It’s clear. What we see happening in Chicago is not new, not unprecedented, and not surprising. The vast majority of parents care about their kids. As a result, there is an economic demand for education, and supply is rushing in to fill that demand.

Just like competition works in the rest of the market, when free of government interference and compulsion, people can exercise their preferences, prices can be attached to those preferences, and resources can be sent to fulfill their demands. The longer this is allowed to happen, the more participants – both suppliers and consumers – get to test products and services, and the more suppliers reduce their prices to give the consumers more for less.

The removal of the government blanket that smothers market competition in education allows for a flourishing of that market, and a flourishing of minds. It’s a lifeline that runs back centuries to people whom we can respect and admire.

It’s great to see word get round about this, and to realize we can take hold of that lifeline. The work of people like Adams, Sam Blumenfeld (who was a friend of mine, and a true genius) and other memorable Americans is all part of its tight, noble weave.

And it’s a lifeline that the kids in Chicago could use.