A Brief History of Public Education: School Choice in America Part II

The first part of this series focused on the various efforts around the country to establish school choice. This piece attempts to shed light upon the history of compulsory public education in America.

As the nation debates the merits of school choice I’ve noticed a common theme in the arguments of the ideas’ opponents. They assert that the implementation of school choice would abandon a noble tradition with early roots in the American founding.

School choice opponents love to paint our compulsory public education system as part of the American promise, thus shielding it from criticism. But contrary to popular belief, compulsory education does not have a terribly long tradition in either England or the United States. Not until the late 19th century did either of these countries establish their first compulsory education laws.

Compulsory education failed to gain any traction for several decades after the founding of the American Republic. Though it is true several founding fathers advocated some form of national education, the American people were at first unwilling to give up control of their children’s learning.

Children in the early 19th century were largely homeschooled or apprenticed to tradesmen. In stark contrast to modern students, these children received their educations with individual attention and finished with little to no debt. The wealth of learning options open to citizens allowed them to make the best decision regarding which form of education would best benefit the family. 

It was not until the 1840’s that compulsory education first gained popular support. That decade an influx of Irish and German Catholic immigrants began to frighten what was then a thoroughly Protestant society. It was thought that ensuring the same education to all, devoid of religious or political influence, would best preserve the principles of American democracy (then thought to be threatened by Catholicism).

The Blaine Amendments to state constitutions, which remain in place, prevented state money from going to parochial schools. It is these very amendments which are the primary obstacles in the way of states attempting to pass school voucher laws.

Compulsory education also found support among intellectuals in the Progressive movement. For them it was essential that the state directly control the education of its citizens. Famed Progressive and educational philosopher John Dewey once wrote that “through education society can formulate its own purposes, can organize its own means and resources, and thus shape itself with definiteness and economy in the direction in which it wishes to move.” Dewey like other Progressives found an example of their preferred educational system in the early Soviet Union. “The Russian educational situation is enough to convert one to the idea that only in a society based upon the cooperative principle can the ideals of educational reformers be adequately carried into operation.”

Leading the way, Massachusetts passed the first compulsory education law in 1852. As Progressive ideology gained popularity in the late 19th century other states were quick to follow suite. By 1917 every state in the Union had adopted compulsory education laws.

It must be pointed out here that the United States had not previously been a nation of illiterate citizens. Estimates reveal that 90% of all whites in the mid-19th century were able to read, write, and perform basic arithmetic. These statistics like nothing else reveal that the impetus behind compulsory schooling was always more political than educational.

Administrators began to implement new curriculum without any fear of losing students. Stripped of any choice concerning their children’s education, lower and middle income parents were obligated to send their children to the local public school. These parents slowly lost influence over the aspect of parenting once considered most important. Over time the system became evermore politicized, bureaucratic, detached from family, and most importantly devoid of any moral content.

Any serious solution to the modern education problem should take into account the benefits of a repeal of the state compulsory education laws. The end of such laws would bring about an ultimate expression of school choice. Parents could choose between homeschool, trade schools charter schools, and religious schools for their children. These decisions would allow families to make the choice most likely to fit in with their financial, educational, and moral needs.

From here going forward the nation needs to come to terms with the fact that mandatory public education simply isn’t the only, or even the best, option for the public welfare.