Horace Mann, generally regarded as the father of America’s current public school system, once predicted: “Let the Common School ... be worked with the efficiency of which it is susceptible, and nine tenths of the crimes in the penal code would become obsolete; the long catalogue of human ills would be abridged.”
Suffice it to say it hasn’t quite worked out that way.
Not only are the crimes not obsolete, they are now being committed in the schools themselves—and with such frequency that the federal government has to issue an annual report on the matter (“Indicators of School Crime and Safety”). Scarcely a day goes by that we’re not treated to an appalling new headline about some student or teacher behaving badly. It’s not a stretch to say that many schools—architecturally soulless buildings replete with metal detectors and police officers, and sometimes even put on lockdown—bear a striking resemblance to prisons.
Saddest of all, none of this seems out of the ordinary anymore. As one parent told The Oklahoman, it’s just something “the kids feel like they have to get used to.”
Ironically, crimes are now being committed in schools named for Horace Mann himself. The Oklahoman recently reported that “a student at Horace Mann Elementary School in northwest Oklahoma City has accused two classmates of holding her down while a third fondled her naked breasts in the presence of a substitute teacher and other students.” According to the police report, “This all took place in the classroom at the end of the day with 15 other students and a substitute teacher (present).”
As a parent, and as someone who once served as a volunteer reading tutor at that particular school, this is heartbreaking (and infuriating) news. As I never tire of repeating, if a child is in an unsafe school environment, or is being bullied, or is simply fed up with being treated like an inmate, that child deserves a ticket out. His or her parents deserve a voucher or a tax break so they can send the child to a nonpublic school.
After all, this is the way we operate in nearly every other area of American life. Just because the government provides something doesn’t mean the government has to produce all of it. Food-stamp recipients shop at private grocery stores. Medical-welfare recipients go to private doctors and hospitals. Perhaps more to the point, even many Oklahoma inmates are housed in private prisons. There’s no reason education should be any different. Parents should be free to choose.
Charles Burris, a history teacher at a public high school in Tulsa, points to what must surely be the final indignity. “In downtown Tulsa there is an ancient brick building that exemplifies the entire history of compulsory government schooling in one facility,” he writes. For years it “served its appropriate captive clientele” as the Horace Mann Junior High School, and then continued to do the same when it became the Horace Mann Community Correctional Center. “From ‘prison’ to ‘prison’ without anyone noticing any substantial change in mission statement.”
If Mr. Mann were alive today, I don’t think he would be surprised to learn that many parents are choosing the very option Mann chose for his own children: homeschooling.
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