Public Education is under concerted attack on multiple fronts across the United States. Tea Baggers, Libertarians, religious zealots, money hungry sharpies hustling for-profit schools, old fashion racists and xenophobes, Republican politicians on the make, climate change deniers and dinosaurs-just-missed-the-Arc crowd, anti-labor crusaders, and the usual I-don’t-wanna-pay-no-stinkin’-taxes crowd combine on wave after wave of attacks on the Federal, state, and Local levels.
The attacks come in many forms—promotion of alleged school choice; slashing budgets; demonizing teachers as a profession; attacking collective bargaining rights, benefits, and pensions; attacking affirmative action and continued desegregation efforts; attempting to exclude children of undocumented immigrants; banning bi-lingual education; promoting aggressive zero tolerance discipline policies that result in wide spread suspensions and expulsion; dismantling special services for the disabled and at-risk students; micro-managing texts and curricula to exclude certain scientific knowledge and often to encourage out-right lies about evolution, climate change, sexuality, and history.
The motivations and tactics of the various players may vary. But they are united in a single aim—discredit public education and drive as many students as possible out of the system leaving behind only the poorest who have no other alternatives. That generally means minorities and other despised populations. With upper and middle class students stripped away, support for public education will evaporate, funding further whither until the remnant collapses.
The very wealthy will do what they have always done—provide lavish private education with the best available teachers, equipment, and facilities. Their children will get full educations—including the scientific knowledge that religious zealots want to deny the rest of the population. Their children will be able to seamlessly maintain their position of privilege and dominance.
The dwindling middle class will be driven to charter, parochial, or for-profit private academies. Catholic and so-called Christian schools are already well established over much of the country and with potential new pools of students can be established everywhere. Ideologically driven secular private schools and for-profit operations will be willing to pedal approved versions of the “truth.” Moderate and liberal families of modest means have few such options. They will either have to gin up whole new school systems, or send their children to the traps laid for them. If they do manage to establish their own schools, look for state and local authorities to try to force their preferred curriculum on them. For these folks choice always means their choice.
Of course, folks are awakening to all of this. It is not too late to head off catastrophe.
But maybe it would be good to look back at the origins of the free public education system that empowered generations.
On May 18, 1852 Massachusetts became the first state to require education for all children.
Although the Puritans in 1647 established rules that every town maintain a school and levying fines on parents who failed to enroll children, the law was never really enforced and the Bay State, like others, came to rely on a patchwork of private academies and tutors to serve the needs of its children. With a high social value placed on reading, writing and ability to do basic “ciphers” Massachusetts still had the highest literacy rate among the states.
But the influx of poor, largely Irish and Catholic immigrants in the 1840’s alarmed authorities in two ways. First, they feared that an “ignorant rabble” would be a threat to domestic tranquility and republican virtue. Second, they feared the parochial schools being established by Catholics would entrench an “alien religion” in their midst.
Unitarian social reformer Horace Mann, who was made the first Secretary of the Massachusetts Board of Education in 1837, retired from a successful political career and dedicated himself to working tirelessly to establish a Common School system. He visited every existing school in the state, established a Normal School system for the training of teachers, instituted reforms where he could, opposed corporal punishment, and constantly wrote and lectured on the need for compulsory public education.
In his magazine The Common School Journal he laid out six principles: that the public should no longer remain ignorant; that such education should be paid for, controlled, and sustained by the public; that education best be provided in schools that embrace children from a variety of backgrounds; that education must be non-sectarian; that students should be taught by the spirit, methods, and discipline of a free society; and that instruction be provided by well-trained, professional teachers.
In 1843 he toured Europe at his own expense to inspect educational developments there. He became enthusiastic for the Prussian System of mandatory public education.
Although Mann was elected to Congress, taking the seat vacated by the death of John Quincy Adams in 1848, he remained a steadfast booster of public education. Despite being narrowly defeated for Governor in 1852, Mann was able to finally see his Common School program adopted by the Commonwealth.
He then left to assume the presidency of Antioch College in Ohio, where he served until his death in 1859.
He did live to see his idea spread. New York adopted the system in 1854 and it spread slowly over Northern, Mid Western, and Western states. Resistance was hardest in the South which argued that children were necessary for labor on the farm, and later in the growing textile industry.
After the Civil War Southern states were also reluctant to adopt a system that would require them to educate Black children.
None the less, by 1919 all states had adopted compulsory education rules.
The new public education systems never did completely supplant either Catholic parochial schools or private academies. Public schools in the 19th Century often followed Mann’s dream of being “non-sectarian” only in that they were not Catholic. They often acted as a broad transmitter of the dominant Protestant culture which was enshrined in staple texts like McGuffey’s Readers and in regular prayer.
The tensions between these public and private systems are still being played out in controversies over school funding and the right wing ideological movement to replace “government schools.” If Mann failed to establish universal public education, at least compulsory education laws required that all children get some form of instruction. That made the United States by the mid 20th Century the most universally literate society the world had ever known.
Alas, many nations, including some considered to be in the Third World have now surpassed the United States in literacy, in no small measure because of the concerted attacks on public education.