One of the false assertions we hear concerning choice is “public education is crucial to the American melting pot.” However, forcing such diverse peoples into one learning environment based solely on where they live has dumbed down our ability to education our children to the lowest common denominator instead of allowing families to choose a school which could meet their children’s individual abilities (and interests, needs, values, etc.). Further, it has been a source of more social conflict and segregation than cohesion and true integration.
In 2008 Neal McCluskey published “As American as Bavarian Cream Pie” as part of the July/August Cato Policy Report. It is an excellent explanation of the origins and reasoning (faulty & otherwise) for public education in the United States. It is roughly four pages and can easily be read in one sitting and available Here. We would like to share a few of the more enlightening and compelling points below, but encourage you to read it in full. It is a short, easy read.
We are told that state schooling is critical to American unity and freedom. Nothing could be further from the truth. Voluntary, largely private education was the norm as the American colonies grew into a free, strong nation. When public schooling did grow, it sowed conflict wherever there was not already unity. Perhaps worst of all, its greatest champions have been driven by the patently un-American conviction that for adults to be free, they must be indoctrinated as children.
Thankfully, the most truly American value—individual liberty—reveals the way forward. We must have educational freedom today, or we’ll have neither unity nor freedom tomorrow.
Soon, everyone in America recognized the enlightenment of public schooling and erected their own systems wiping out ignorance, teaching all children how to live in a free society, and giving even the poorest kids unprecedented upward mobility. That compelling narrative is used to explain the epic purpose of public schooling and demand continued fealty to it. It’s also a myth that undergirds a fundamentally flawed—and un-American—institution, twists historical truth beyond recognition, and is rooted in the conviction that freedom can only be granted to adults if the state indoctrinates the children.
It is true, as public schooling advocates are quick to point out, that authorities in colonial Massachusetts passed laws requiring that all children be educated and that communities provide the means to teach them. In 1642, colonial leaders mandated that all families provide basic reading, religious, and civic education for their children, a statute that was ultimately mirrored in several other colonies. Five years later, Massachusetts enacted the “Old Deluder Satan” Act, which required that all towns with 50 to 99 families retain someone to teach children reading and writing and that all with 100 or more establish grammar schools.
Those acts certainly introduced compulsory education through government, but in at least two respects their requirements were very different from those of public schooling today. First, the education to be provided was not expected to be free; the Old Deluder Satan Act stipulated that teachers could be paid “by the inhabitants in general” or by “the parents or masters” of children using the school services.
Although colonial authorities tried to force towns to maintain schools, publicly provided education simply could not compete with more basic priorities like shelter, food, and defense. While municipalities ignored grammar schooling requirements, a wave of private and public writing schools swept over the colony, and other private options with much more practical bents blossomed.
Colonists consumed a great deal of home and private schooling. And, perhaps in greatest contrast with the public schooling myth, the middle colonies saw the creation of numerous for-profit schools as towns became bigger and better able to sustain education markets. In the end, highly decentralized, largely private colonial education worked very well, especially considering that America was essentially a wilderness and Americans pioneers. By the drafting of the Constitution, an estimated 65 percent of free America males were literate, a very high number by European standards.
The Land Ordinance of 1785 did set aside acreage in western territories “for the maintenance of public schools,” and Thomas Jefferson proposed a public schooling system for Virginia and even some federal education involvement. But the Land Ordinance’s dicta were largely ignored, and neither Jefferson’s Virginia public schooling nor federal education plans were enacted. At least one likely reason there was little change was that American education continued to work. By 1840 about 90percent of white adults were estimated to be literate, and Americans were consuming education at high rates.
It was not until Horace Mann became the first secretary of the Massachusetts Board of Education in 1837—more than six decades after the establishment of an independent nation—that significant efforts to collectivize American education gained traction, a reality that alone dispels the notion that public schooling, as political scientist Benjamin Barber has put it, is the “foundation of our democracy.”
The first compulsory attendance law was not passed until 1852 in Massachusetts, but with most children already going to school it was largely symbolic. In 1890 the union had 44 states but only 27 with compulsory attendance laws, and it was not until 1918 that every state had joined in.
Despite the lagged completion of compulsory attendance, the administrative structure of modern public schooling had been cemented by roughly 1900, with top down, bureaucratic control widespread. Even using that date instead of 1918 as the final nail in the coffin of decentralized, entrepreneurial education, however, it is clear that the country was not built on public schooling.
The greatest proponents of public schooling were all too often driven by the patently un-American conviction that for adults to safely have freedom, the state has to indoctrinate them as children.
To these ends, public schooling advocates labored to take schooling control away from “lay” people by imposing “scientific,” bureaucratic control over schools. They also waged war on private schooling.
Today, public schooling continues to be defended on forced-unity grounds. But that isn’t very far, and when parents haven’t welcomed indoctrination—when they have wanted their children to learn about cherished values, traditions, and identities frowned on by elites—public schooling has regularly fostered conflict, not concord.
Today, following decades of district consolidation, the imposition of statewide curricula, and threats of national standards, all religious, ideological, and ethnic groups are forced to fight, unable to escape even into the relative peace of truly local districts. The result is seemingly constant warfare over issues such as intelligent design, abstinence education, multiculturalism, school prayer, offensive library books, and so on. When diverse people are forced to support a single system of public schools, they don’t come together, they fight to make theirs the values that are taught.
The tragedy of proclaiming state-run schooling crucial to unity is that it has the opposite effect. Recognizing this, however, makes the real key to unity obvious: end public schooling and return to public education, just as we had for centuries. Ensure that the poor can access education, but let parents decide how and where their children will be educated.
Catholic schools typically have much higher graduation rates than public schools, even after adjusting for students’ socioeconomic status. Why? Because Catholic school parents, administrators, and students form cohesive communities with shared goals, norms, responsibilities, and trust—social capital—which enables them to focus efficiently and effectively on teaching kids and getting them to graduation. Public schools, in contrast, force disparate groups together, yielding bickering and lowest-common-denominator compromises, and replacing trust with efficiency killing rules and regulations.
The way to achieve unity without war is to let people voluntarily come together in pursuit of their own self-interest. This is called “freedom,” and it has been unifying people from America’s earliest days.
In our own time, research suggests that school choice provides more meaningful integration than the forced togetherness of public schooling.
It turns out that when they can choose, parents find schools—and other parents—that share their educational desires and values, and those shared interests often transcend things like race. Simply forcing people into the same building, in contrast, furnishes no ties that bind. But private schools do a better job of teaching civic values than public schools.