Why do we have public schools?
I see a fair amount of memes posted by teachers and other advocates of the public schools. I would say, I see a fair amount of learned argument in articles by the same, but most articles are not more articulate than the memes. Almost all of them assume the value of what we're doing now, as if all we had to do to improve our schools was to fund more adequately the (frequently dismal) results we so often get.
One of the elements so often lacking in any discussion of public school, teaching as a career, funding, test scores, etc., is any historical sense of why we do things the way we do. Again, if all we do is assume the value of what we're doing now, then we will continue to get the results we've always gotten. A little historical review, however, will quickly establish that there are many different ways in which societies have educated their young. We didn't have to do it the way we do now. And any attempt to re-engineer the ways we provide public schooling will require us to remember what we were trying to do when we first provided public funding for schools.
There are three historical purposes in America for public schools. Providing a stage for athletic glory is not one of them. Nor is providing employment for teachers (or faculty of teacher colleges). Feeding kids breakfast, providing free clinics, and other societal good works are not of primary importance, either. We could do all these things in different ways. But we have decided that providing public money for schools is justified for three reasons.
The first reason given for public schools is from colonial Massachusetts. The first bill appropriating money to educate all the children of the colony was the Old Deluder Satan Act
of 1642. This provided public money to teach children how to read, in order that they might be able to read the Bible for themselves. Reaching beyond the religious purpose of the law, the act is based upon the observation that literacy allows people to investigate truth claims for themselves. Not only can they read the Bible (and not be fooled by the devil), but they can read contracts (and not be fooled by landlords, merchants, and lawyers). If you can read, you can read newspapers (and the internet); you can read Help Wanted ads; you can read the fine print on the patent medicine. Literacy is empowering in multiple ways, and empowering the individual is of prime value in American social understanding.
The second and third reasons given for public schools come from the public discussion leading up to the Northwest Ordinance of 1787. This was the most notable achievement of the Confederation Congress. Together with the Land Ordinance of 1787, it set up the mechanism of surveying the land in the Northwest Territory, with one section of each township set aside for funding schools. Outside of Massachusetts, public schools were rare in the new United States, but the whole nation through its Congress agreed that schools in the new, unsettled territory would be provided by the local government. Why?
In setting up the Northwest Territory (with the idea that it would be divided into free and equal States), Congress was trying to re-create the conditions of liberty in the established States. They were trying to guide the formation of a new society to be in harmony with the values of the existing one. Specifically, the concern was that citizens need to understand what citizenship entailed. They need to understand how our government works, and be willing to undertake their responsibilities to maintain it. They need to be prepared to function within a particular civic order. At the same time as the Constitution was being written and ratified, people were saying that the maintenance of our institutions depends upon people being able and willing to take up the task of doing so. Civics is not just about teaching people how our government works, but also about imparting the ideas and culture of the American Enlightenment and the English legal tradition from which it came.
At the same time, liberty to think for yourself and defend your rights had to be accompanied by a sense of responsibility to provide for yourself. The framers of the Northwest Ordinance were concerned that ill-educated persons might become a charge upon the government. Everyone agreed, even in frontier days, that some provision should be made for the poor, for orphans, for the mentally impaired. We may think the provision provided at the time inadequate, but at least the obligation was acknowledged. At the same time, the overwhelming consensus in America was that people should provide for their own families. In order to do so, a person needed to be able to read and do basic math. And while most children were acculturated to the world of work by helping in the home and in the family business (or farm), preparing the young for future employment also requires that they be taught the social skills and expectations of work.
I would suggest to you that these three things are the basis of why we have public schools. Athletics, the arts, preparing kids for college, and social welfare programs are all secondary. If we fail at these three things, then the whole raison d'etre
for having public schools is called into question. And where schools perform poorly in these areas, other education options are appropriate, and can be properly funded by public money. If I were in charge of accrediting public schools, then, I would evaluate them on these three bases:
Are kids learning to read? And not just read with comprehension, but to engage the world of ideas? Assuming we are teaching them to think for themselves, are we avoiding indoctrination and enforcement of ideological taboos?
Are the students learning how our government works? Are they learning our history? Is the curriculum being presented recommending the virtues of our form of government to the minds of the young? Are they being formed in the habit of contributing to the betterment of the community?
Are the future workers being equipped to find employment, succeed in the world of work, and find satisfaction in their life choices? Are they learning the value of working for things, of saving for the future? Are they learning about the handling of money and the maintenance of things like houses and cars?
All the rest of what schools do is fine and dandy, but are only of value if these three needs are met. Matters of accreditation and debates about public funding and public oversight need to address these issues, even if everything else goes hang.