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Robert Thoburn, R.I.P.

Gary North
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Dec. 25, 2012

Robert Thoburn died of cancer on December 23. He was 83. He and his wife Rosemary were pioneers in the development of independent Christian schools in the United States.

There had been parochial schools from the middle of the nineteenth century. These are church-run schools. Roman Catholic immigrants set up parochial schools. Lutherans also have used parochial schools for over a century.

Protestant Dutch Calvinist immigrants began setting up schools in the late nineteenth century. They used a different model: board-run nonprofit schools. They were legally and economically independent of local congregations.

The Thoburns broke with both of these models. They set up a family-owned school in 1961, the Fairfax Christian School, in Fairfax, Virginia. They focused on phonics and traditional education. By 1968, the school had 650 students. In that year, it graduated its first high school seniors.

The Thoburns had a philosophy of ownership that was at odds with most educators. They did not believe in subsidies: from the state, from churches, or from parents. They depended on no school fund-raising programs. Parents paid all of the costs associated with their children's classroom education. There were no large discounts for multiple children. Robert Thoburn used to say: "I don't get a discount from the barber when I take my sons in for haircuts."

This system of ownership gave a direct incentive for the owners to cut costs, deliver high-quality service, and invest for the future.

The school got national publicity when Review of the News published an article, "How to Stop Heir Pollution" in 1970. That gained national attention for their program. In 1981, People wrote it up. The article remains online.

The Thoburns began offering seminars on how to start private schools. They helped other start at least 200 schools. Rosemary Thoburn was a specialist in phonics. She gave classes on this. Teachers came from all over the United States to attend. Two of her students went on to found the A Beka book publishing program, the most successful Protestant school curriculum in the United States.

In 1986, my publishing company, Dominion Press, co-published his book, The Children Trap, with Thomas Nelson Sons. The book was on the evils of tax-funded compulsory education. I keep it online here.

The Thoburns had 8 children. He leaves behind 45 grandchildren and 19 great grandchildren.

I never met a more cheerful man. He never complained. He was always upbeat. He was a true optimist. The only other person I ever knew who was anything like him in temperament was Murray Rothbard.

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