NEW YORK — Robyn Miller is proud to call herself a "school Sakharov" - as in Andrei Sakharov, the former Soviet physicist who boldly denounced his own government.
"He had been on the inside, and so he was able to tell the world the truth about what the system was really like," explains the former public-school teacher who lives in Billings, Mont.
The system Ms. Miller is eager to expose is not a communist dictatorship. In fact, many would call it as American and wholesome as apple pie. It is the United States public-school system, which, according to Miller, wastes money, destroys children, and "causes nothing but misery."
As a young teacher, Miller says she watched the second- and third-grade children in her care "being run through a conveyor belt and warehoused" by a centralized and highly institutional form of education. When her own children started school, she says it broke her heart to see how quickly their initial energy and enthusiasm turned to boredom and alienation.
Miller now home-schools all four of her children, and she is one of several thousand Americans who have signed their names to the petition produced by the Fresno, Calif.-based Separation of School & State Alliance (SS&SA), which calls for a complete end to government involvement in education funding, attendance, and content. She is joined by, among others, US Rep. Ron Paul of Texas, Colorado state Sen. John Andrews, award-winning teacher John Paul Gatto, and an eclectic mix of fundamentalist Christian, Catholic, Jewish, and Muslim clergy.
The drive to completely separate the school system from the state may represent only a fringe element of US public opinion (the group's aim is to collect 1 million signatures by 2001, but so far it has only 8,700). Some observers call the movement simply an extreme extension of the current enthusiasm for applying free-market principles to education.
But others say the fact that the six-year-old SS&SA exists at all is a telling commentary on the depth of public discontent with the nation's schools. They suggest that, in addition to the burgeoning number of home-schoolers and the drive to return more schooling to the care of churches, the SS&SA is a sign that the common school system is unraveling.
"I'm not sure that a strong voice calling for a complete pullout [of the government from education] resonates with a lot of folks," says Mary Fulton, policy analyst for the Education Commission of the States, in Denver.
With the growth of vouchers and charter schools in the past few years diffusing some of the parental discontent, she says, "there are now fewer people who want to completely dismantle the school system."
But on the other hand, Ms. Fulton says, "many Americans want to see [the public schools] improve dramatically and are ready to try alternatives."
Pockets of extreme disaffection are found in various corners. Some Christian groups urge parents to "rescue" their children by pulling them from secular state-run schools. Exodus 2000 in Columbia, S.C., Exodus Project in St. Paul, Minn., and Rescue 2010, headquartered in Irvine, Calif., are all aimed at expediting the flow of students from the public-school system into church-run schools.
But while many SS&SA supporters do oppose public schools on religious grounds, others object to a centralized system from a philosophical basis. Mr. Gatto, who at various times has been named Teacher of the Year in both New York State and New York City, is also a signatory of the SS&SA petition. "I've borne witness about what I saw inside those schools," he says of his 30 years in New York public schools. "Centralized education is a very bad idea. It's not reformable. You can make a change or two, but it never lasts."
Gatto and others say it's a mistake to imagine that the US common school system was ever an effective educator. The lack of individual attention, the need to move large numbers of children through at the same pace regardless of their natural ability and enthusiasm levels, and a tendency to reward only conformist behavior, make a centralized school system the least likely means of producing a creative and thoughtful populace, they insist.
"The system has failed, and it's time for a real revolution," says Christina Jeffery, associate professor of political science and public administration at Kennesaw State University in Georgia.
Professor Jeffrey (also a signatory of the SS&SA petition) would like to see education in the hands of a system of small, community-based schools, church schools, and, most of all, parents. In studying home schooling, she says she has seen parents who were not very well-educated themselves succeed in turning out students at a higher-performing level than public schools generally do.
Some supporters of the SS&SA movement also refer enthusiastically to a notion put forward in "Market Education: The Unknown History," by Andrew Coulson. Mr. Coulson, a senior research associate at the Social Philosophy and Policy Center of Bowling Green State University in Ohio, contrasts ancient education systems. In Athens - a culturally sophisticated and highly literate state - all education was private. Sparta - a culturally barren and much-less-literate state - relied on standardized public education.
Some students of history, however, question Coulson's idealization of the system in Athens, pointing out that no less a critic than Plato often found his fellow Athenians seriously deficient in higher-order thinking skills.
Marshall Fritz, founder of the SS&SA and a former IBM salesman and Libertarian Party organizer, often finds himself having to defend the idea of separating school and state in the face of objections that it is utterly unrealistic.
Despite the ridicule by some, Mr. Fritz predicts that a $300 billion tax cut that would accompany the government's exit from the education business, coupled with $175 billion already made available for education through private charities and foundations, would permit the creation of a system of small, innovative, private schools and sufficient scholarship funds for children in need.
Fritz assumes the bulk of the population would be able to pay the few thousand dollars of annual tuition for the small schools. Children whose parents couldn't or wouldn't scrape together the tuition would be provided for by charity.
Lee Berg, an organizational specialist for the National Education Association in Washington, D.C., says many SS&SA signatories are people who "disagree with the government funding of a lot of things, education being one of them."
But their message is particularly attractive, he says, to parents who "want children educated with a kind of religious perspective that public schools simply aren't in the business to promote."
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society