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"You could be forgiven," Cato Institute scholar Neal McCluskey writes, "for thinking that first God created public schools, and then, seeing that they were good, let them create the United States."

The basic story is familiar: The pilgrims landed in the New World and set up schools to educate all children. 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. Finally, as time went on and immigrants flooded in, the public schools not only taught all children the skills they needed for life success but gently melded disparate ethnic and religious groups into a unified, American whole.

The problem with that story is that it’s false. As attorney and professor Justin Paulette reminds us, before its “eventual foray into public education,” America “enjoyed a flourishing of educational freedom which relied upon parents and churches educating children through local, cooperative efforts consistent with their social and religious traditions.”

“The early American view of education,” Paulette says, “was codified in the Northwest Ordinance of 1787: ‘Religion, morality, and knowledge, being necessary to good government and the happiness of mankind, schools and the means of education shall forever be encouraged.’”

Unambiguously, “religion, morality and knowledge were the goal of education. As to the means, Adam Smith’s monumental The Wealth of Nations in 1776 articulated the prevailing preference that governments provide parents with vouchers, thereby funding education and preventing a monopoly over educational services. Concurring with this judgment, the Virginia Assembly twice rejected Thomas Jefferson’s proposals to create a free public school system funded by general tax revenues and free from sectarian influence.”

Incidentally, even Jefferson’s vision of public education didn’t include compulsory attendance. “It is better to tolerate that rare instance of a parent’s refusing to let his child be educated,” he believed, “than to shock the common feelings by a forcible transportation and education of the infant against the will of his father.”

Regrettably, we have squandered our educational-freedom inheritance. And as Greg Forster points out, “the seizure of power over education by a government monopoly and attendant interest groups (especially unions) has had far-reaching implications for our nation. The American founders would have viewed it as incompatible with a free and democratic society, as well as a realistic understanding of the natural formation of the human person in the family.”

Public education, far from being “the cornerstone of our republic” (as the Oklahoma Education Association believes), is in fact inimical to the principles of freedom set forth in the Declaration of Independence. Public education, says McCluskey, “is a fundamentally flawed—and un-American—institution.”

Thankfully, as we celebrate Independence Day 2012, there are encouraging signs that educational freedom is making a comeback. “The most truly American value,” McCluskey reminds us, is individual liberty. “We must have educational freedom today, or we'll have neither unity nor freedom tomorrow.”

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