Matt Evans: Legalizing Education And The Case For Tiny Schools


After last week’s Supreme Court decision, which mandated that same-sex marriages be legal in all 50 states, the US Department of Education shared a rainbow-flag version of its logo on social media.  A friend of mine remarked that he thought that sort of social advocacy by the department of education was inappropriate, and the discussion quickly turned to the merits of Christian private schools.

Private school tuition is expensive.  Many families who would like to opt out of public schools are unable to do so because of the costs involved with private schools.  Homeschooling is a great option, but can be difficult and expensive.

The history of public education is recent and interesting, and I recommend the short book by Murray Rothbard, “Education: Free and Compulsory.”  You can actually find it as a free PDF or Ebook.  It turns out that for much of history, children have been educated outside of the (non-existent) public school system.

So why is private school financially out of reach today for many families?

There are three primary reasons private schools are expensive.

First, most people who utilize a private school are buying school twice. They’re still paying the high property taxes that partially pay for the public education they’re not using. Then they’re adding private tuition costs on top of that.

Secondly, there are economic distortions in the private school marketplace.

Fundamentally, economics tells us that the price of something cannot be high if nobody wants it and there is an abundance of it.

[mks_pullquote align=”right” width=”300″ size=”24″ bg_color=”#000000″ txt_color=”#ffffff”]If you ask me, 50 kids is probably about as big as a school should be, especially for young children.[/mks_pullquote]

Contrastingly, something that lots of people want and that there isn’t enough of for everyone will usually be expensive.

This is called “supply and demand”.

So, if I could go and start a private school, and I could charge 20% less than the existing private schools, and still provide a good-enough “product” to the families, I should get a bunch of business, right? If I do a good job satisfying the families, the established private schools should have to lower their costs to stay competitive with my lower priced offering.

This should lead to more “supply” of private education, as well as lower costs for everyone.

Why isn’t this happening?

It turns out that starting a private school is artificially difficult because of state regulation.  We live in a time when children who want to run lemonade stands often need government permission.  If I want to go and start my hypothetical private school, it turns out that the State of North Dakota places many impediments in my path.  You can read about some of them on page 215 of this document, from 2009.

For instance – the law says that the state DPI (that’s Ms. Baesler) approves/rejects private schools, apparently at her pleasure. The state says that approving a school with fewer than 50 kids is optional. If you ask me, 50 kids is probably about as big as a school should be, especially for young children.  The law says that every teacher has to have an education degree (or equivalent certification), and has to be licensed by the state to teach.

So, apparently it’s legally risky to try starting a school unless you can start with at least 50 kids, which means at least 3 teachers (state law requires 1 teacher per 25 kids), and, each of those teachers has to have interacted (in some way) with the state education system, and be certified to teach a particular subject.
I can think of many people I know that I would be happy to have teach my kids individually, or in a group of 5 or 10 children. And I think most people could say the same thing for the people in their circles, and for their own children.

But 5 or 10 person schools taught by responsible adults that we know and trust are apparently illegal in North Dakota.

Additionally, the state of ND has a law that says, at least at the high school level, that nobody can teach a class on a particular topic unless they are state certified for that specific topic – again, according to whatever the state requires in order for someone to be certified.  Like many good intentioned laws, this one has some bad consequences.  A school cannot offer a class without a teacher certified in that class, but a school is unlikely to pay to have a teacher certified if there is no apparent demand for the class.

There is a chicken-and-egg problem here, and it means that it is very difficult to teach things like Computer Science in North Dakota schools.  In fact, I have been a volunteer Computer Science teacher for the last two years in ND public schools, in part because finding a properly certified teacher is nearly impossible.

[mks_pullquote align=”left” width=”300″ size=”24″ bg_color=”#000000″ txt_color=”#ffffff”]…someone with my background might do a perfectly adequate job of teaching children Math, or computer programming.  But the law says that I can’t be employed as a teacher doing those things right now. Not even part time.[/mks_pullquote]

So as it turns out, someone with my background might do a perfectly adequate job of teaching children Math, or computer programming.  But the law says that I can’t be employed as a teacher doing those things right now. Not even part time.  (Thus, I volunteer by special arrangement.)

So, government has made a professional education silo that restricts who can teach, what schools can do, what schools must do, and how big they have to be before they can even get off the ground.

These government restrictions are what are known as “barriers to marketplace entry” – factors that make it more difficult and more risky for a new marketplace entrant (like me) from providing services in that space.
And so the result is that we don’t have many private schools.  Given that there is high demand, the ones we do have all cost a lot of money.

Finally, the primary cost of running a private school is paying teachers.  Hiring state certified teachers as full time employees who expect their teaching salary to provide them with a good standard of living is really, really expensive.   Suppose that you would like to pay a teacher $50,000 a year.  If this teacher teaches 5 students, each family must supply $10,000 per student per year.  This assumes no overhead of any kind, which is of course unrealistic.  This is an expensive tuition for a modest teacher salary, and the whole premise is un-realistic because none of the other school costs are addressed.

The natural maneuver to try and bring down tuition costs is to increase the size of the class, so that the teaching salary costs are spread over more students, and ideally, more families, up until you hit the state magic ratio of 1 teacher per 25 students.  But this is a poor move, because the one factor that reliably improves educational outcomes independent of all other variables is to shrink the size of classes.  So not only for social reasons, but for educational reasons as well, it is desirable to have very small class sizes.

Additionally, if one of the driving reasons for private schools is to find educational environments tailored to the interests and values of specific families, the smaller the school, the better tailored it can be.

If we were able to cast away the state regulations on running a private school, and, we could somehow address the problem of paying qualified teachers, what kind of school could we create?

The Tiny School

I think you could make a pretty excellent school for a small number of children by getting 1-2 hours of teaching time a day, per instructor, from a handful of unconventional, financially independent instructors.

Like Who?  For example: retirees, established professionals, and stay at home parents. All of these people would have some other primary income stream if they wanted/needed one; none of them would depend on teaching income from the Tiny School as their sustaining income source.  Most of them could spare 1 or 2 hours per day to help share teaching duties.

These instructors would only get a tiny stipend from the tiny school. The stipend would more than cover their preparation costs, transportation costs, etc, but fundamentally, the instructors would be volunteering because they believed in sharing their values and passions with a new generation of kids – many of whom they probably know the families of personally, or have some other connection with (same rural community, neighborhood, culture, religion, etc).

[mks_pullquote align=”right” width=”300″ size=”24″ bg_color=”#000000″ txt_color=”#ffffff”]We have plenty of state laws about schooling.  Now it’s time to legalize education.[/mks_pullquote]

You may object “it’s ridiculous to expect teachers to be volunteers who teach for charity reasons”, but to some extent, isn’t that true today?

First off, parents are the most important teachers in the life of a child. They don’t get paid at all.  They volunteer.
Secondly, aren’t many professional teachers, in effect, performing acts of charity?

Let me explain:

Many people claim that teachers are underpaid. Yet there are still teachers working.

That suggests two different possibilities to me:

The first possibility: a given teacher is indeed actually underpaid. He or she could be doing something else, and making more money. These teachers are, in effect, doing teaching work for altruistic reasons. They teach because they love it and love the difference it makes. They could make more money elsewhere, but not have the same impact on children, or the same personal fulfillment. They are donating part of their wage potential to to the cause of educating children.

The other possibility: a given teacher is actually not underpaid. The teacher is operating at their maximum level of competence and contribution to society, given their current skillset and level of effort.  There is no other role for them in society that would pay them a better wage (unless they were to improve their skillset, productivity, etc, and change careers).

The teachers in the first group are already working for less than they could be making elsewhere for personal altruistic reasons. We want more of them. As long as they can lead the kind of life they want with financial comfort/security, we want all of the altruistically motivated teachers possible. So why not have an arrangement where these people have other jobs that pay the bills, and then we make it easy for them to teach a little bit as their passion?

Regarding teachers in the second group: I contend that we may not want many of these teachers at our tiny school. These are the folks that aren’t as altruistically minded, and where teaching is really the most money they think they could make. Given that many people think teachers are underpaid, these people aren’t high performers, either within the school setting, or apparently, outside of it. Ideally, these people should look for other opportunities outside of education, to improve the caliber of people within the educational system.  This is what some companies would call “good attrition”.

If we accept that teachers are underpaid, then I claim that the teachers who have no better options in the marketplace may not be the best teachers.  And so if the policy of our tiny school is, “you cannot survive on the stipend you make here”, our tiny school would only ever attract altruistic talents, perhaps who were also high performers outside of a school setting. That seems like a good thing.

I understand that it is socially taboo to ever say anything negative about teachers, but the reality is that like any organization, there is a spectrum of performance levels amongst teachers.  My belief is that the teachers who are doing it because they love doing it, even though they could be making more money doing something else, are exactly the kind that we’d want contributing to our Tiny School.

Finally, you might suspect that it would be great if we could get those really exceptional, altruistic type 1 teachers, and get as much of their time as possible as teachers in our Tiny School.  Make them full-timers.
But that is financially unworkable.   An exceptional person, maximally employed in our economy makes a staggering amount of money. And so if we were to divide such a person’s yearly salary by 5 or 10 kids, the cost to pay them is a complete non-starter. The only circumstance where we’d want 100% of a person’s time is if they did not need any outside source of income.  Otherwise, we’d want to leave them plenty of time to earn the money they need to have the quality of life they desire.

Rather, I think what we want are little slivers of time, from lots of amazing and passionate people, willing to volunteer to improve their world. That is both financially workable for the teachers, and lets us have small schools that cater to a wide variety of family situations without breaking the bank.

If this sounds fanciful or unworkable to you, pay attention.  Variations of this Tiny School arrangement exist today.  In North Dakota, many homeschooling families are members of homeschooling co-op organizations.  Volunteers from each family agree to teach different types of classes or lead different activities, and all of the participating students benefit.  These organizations are small, informal, volunteer run, and are incredibly affordable.  The groups are often aligned around common factors like location and religious belief.

By North Dakota law, these homeschool co-ops cannot provide for the official or complete education of the child.  A student can either attend a regulated school, subject to the laws mentioned above, or be taught by the primary home educator.  In North Dakota, a child cannot be declared “homeschooled” and then be primarily taught by someone who isn’t their parent.

So while the co-op model is providing enriching educational experiences today, they are all “off the books” – so far as the state is concerned, they don’t count.

In addition to the homeschool co-op model, there are actual examples of schools with tiny enrollments in other places.  For instance, a school in Wausau has 8 students, between the ages of 6 and 11, who all learn in the same room.

Most people agree that America needs better educational outcomes.  Many families agree that they want alternatives to their local public schools.  Many people would like their children to have smaller class sizes.  Many people would like to try private schools, but cannot afford them.

Many more private and community schools could exist if we relaxed some of the education laws in our state.

It needs to be easier for non-professionals to help participate in educating children in smaller schools; schools that can be organized around communities and values, and far away from federal meddling.

We have plenty of state laws about schooling.  Now it’s time to legalize education.