Venezuela's Education Lesson

Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez has used the power of the state to nationalize the oil industry, squash the independent news media, and control the electoral process. Seizing control of the country’s public and private schools is next on his agenda.

Chavez recently announced plans for a new "Bolivarian" curriculum for all of Venezuela’s schools. Criticizing the old school model as "colonial, capitalist, and soul-destroying," Chavez promised a new model: "We want to create our own ideology collectively." Education Minister Adan Chavez – Hugo’s brother – will develop the curriculum. The new textbooks, Adan promised, will be geared to educate "the new citizen."

Private schools will also be forced to embrace the new curriculum. "Society cannot allow the private sector to do whatever it wants," Chavez explained. "The state has to intervene. They should be subordinate to the constitution and the national education plan." Schools that don’t comply will be closed or nationalized.

Exactly what the new curriculum will contain remains unclear, but one can guess it will closely follow Chavez’s leftist ideology. The Associated Press recently obtained a copy of a Venezuelan university curriculum; it consisted of required readings from Karl Marx and Fidel Castro and history lessons praising the murderous revolutionary Ernesto "Che" Guevara. Elementary and high school students can probably expect something similar.

Chavez’s move follows in the tradition of the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany, which used schools to shape children’s minds to conform with their vision for society. Totalitarian regimes recognize that education is a powerful tool for controlling the state.

Americans witnessing Venezuela’s drift toward totalitarianism should consider how fortunate we are to live in a free society. Yet we should also take a moment to evaluate our own public education system and consider the role that government plays in educating the next generation.

Here in the United States, roughly nine out of ten children attend government-run public schools. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, 74 percent of children attend public schools that they are assigned to by the government. For most American children, important decisions about how they will be educated are largely decided by government officials, not their parents.

Consider the problems that government control of education can cause. It can force schools to choose sides in the culture wars. Reasonable people often disagree on how to handle controversial curriculum decisions, such as sex education, American history, or evolution. Choosing sides, which public schools often have to do, is divisive. Worse, many parents are helplessly left to send their child to a school that teaches values at odds with their own.

Another problem is the lack of quality instruction in many schools. Because most parents have little choice but to enroll their child in the government-assigned school, there are few consequences for schools that fail to educate their students. The result is that many children attend schools with a poor track record of successfully teaching basic subjects like reading and math.

Of course, some American children are fortunate to have alternatives to the government-run public school system. Six million kids are enrolled in private schools. More than a million children are taught at home. Parents and teachers would protest in the streets if the U.S. government followed Venezuela and seized control of private schools and forced all children into a government-run school system.

In recent years, a growing number of kids are being allowed to use their share of public-funding for education to attend a school of their parents’ choice. Thirteen states and Washington, D.C., now have programs to help families choose private schools for their children. And many states and school districts now offer more choice within the public school system through open enrollment policies or strong charter school laws.

But millions of children still lack the opportunity to attend a school of their parents’ choice. If all parents were able to pick their children’s school, schools would have to offer quality services to attract students. The best schools and teachers would thrive and become models for other schools; low-performing schools would be shuttered and replaced. Controversial issues wouldn’t have to be decided by government, since parents would have the ultimate say in how their children are taught.

Universal school choice would address the problems of government-run education. And we can only begin to imagine what types of innovative schools and learning models could be possible if all parents had the power to decide how their children are educated.

Of course, the troubling news out of Venezuela should remind all Americans that we are fortunate to live in free society. But we shouldn’t forget that we have a long way to go before our education system is truly free.