In what must be considered one of the more remarkable developments of modern American life, the U.S. seems on the high road to demolishing its system of public education. Throughout the late 19th and much of the 20th century, American public schools were the envy of and model for national education programs across the globe. They reached a far greater portion of the population than any other national system, had a comprehensive and flexible curriculum, were gender neutral, and increased the literacy rate far beyond even the most advanced countries, including Britain and Germany whose systems were rooted in an elitist conception of access to education.
Public education came early in our history. In 1785 the first general Congressional act for the disposition of land in new territories provided one section in each township surveyed, one square mile, be set aside for public education; township officials were expected to sell most of the land to generate funding for the building, for the teacher, and for materials. These were grammar schools, today's elementary schools.
The nation's founders supported public education, including Jefferson, as one would expect, but also such "conservatives" as John Adams, who wrote, "the whole people must take upon themselves the education of the whole people, and must be willing to bear the expenses of it."
Their reasons included not just benefit to individuals, but as well a fundamental contribution to society. The success of the republic, they reasoned, depended on an informed citizenry, capable of discerning judgment, enjoying equal opportunity. Also, literate persons would advance themselves economically more ably, and would bring general economic advance through the mastery of technology and participation in capital creation.
This latter became the principal motivation behind the widespread and rapid advance of secondary education. High schools provided skill training for young people planning both white- and blue-collar careers. The flexible curriculum favored general skills, widely applicable across many occupations and locations, giving graduates high mobility.
The schools also provided pre-college tracks for those interested in mastering general reasoning and scientific analysis.
Some questioned the notion of publicly supported high schools with their more complex mission. But in 1875 the Michigan Supreme Court unanimously upheld the right of communities to tax their citizenry for high schools; the case encouraged the establishing of public secondary schools across the nation.
The 1910 U.S. census reported 9 percent of Americans held high school diplomas; by 1940 the number had increased to 50 percent.
The first significant attack on public education came, perhaps ironically, with the civil rights revolution. As courts and the U.S. Justice Department, implementing the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision, insisted on full integration of the schools, large numbers of white parents took their children out, opting for private schools, a movement which continues today. Unsurprisingly, these parents soon looked to the federal and state governments to pay for their private enclaves. So far, the preferred method for such funding is the voucher system, effectively giving families money to pay for private and religious schooling.
The justification for vouchers is the quality of teaching and the capability of students in the public schools are sub-standard, and the curriculum ideologically unacceptable. Public financing for private education has led to greatly reduced spending for public schools, a wide-spread attack on teachers' unions, federal funding of for-profit schools, commercial banks managing student loan programs, teachers being made accountable for students' test scores, and a lowering of training standards for new teachers.
Unacknowledged in the attack on public schools is a growing body of research showing a direct correlation between poverty and school performance.
Poor people cannot afford private education, even with vouchers, and the distractions of poverty inhibit disciplined study habits and good test scores.
So, many of our public schools have become poor people's schools where student performance reflects not the quality of teaching but the quality of the students' home and community life. And the resulting divide between poor and rich schools, between public and private schools, contributes greatly to the growing inequality in contemporary America.
We have sullied Jefferson's and Adams' dreams of a more equal society based on an equalizing education, and the quality of American life is poorer for it.
Steve Haycox is professor emeritus of history at the University of Alaska Anchorage.