When the Puritans first set foot on the North American shores to form the Massachusetts Bay Colony, public education was a major goal for the early colonists. Although, their goal was to endow each person with the ability to read the Christian bible, to be able to write, and to do basic mathematics; it had a more profound impact on the population, making a literate society capable of embracing new ideas, incorporating change, and a commitment to success. The first recorded community public school was built in the Town of Dedham, Massachusetts, shortly after the town’s founding in 1635. Two years later, the Bay Colony founded the first university, Harvard, for the training of clergy. From these humble beginnings; the notion of a literate society was born and has grown with the nation over the nearly 400 years since the initial European habitation.
The colonies and states of the Old South followed a much different philosophy with regards to education from the North. The Old South adopted the British Model of education, which made education a function of personal responsibility and the family. Therefore, general education wasn’t a community responsibility and fell to only those that could afford to send their children to the various private academies or obtain the services of a private tutor. Also, whereas the education program of the North was not gender specific; in the Old South, it was the males who received the majority of education effort. Upper class women were taught to read and write and possibly perform basic “sums”; but, there education was focused more on the domestic arts and how to run a household. With the close of the Civil War, the Old South education model ended and they were pulled kicking and screaming into the public education model of the North. It took nearly another 35 years for the South to finally adopt a public education system and that which what was adopted had severe structural weaknesses, race being one.
As public education emerged into the new 20th century, it was not the education system that we see today. Many states had mandatory education only through the 8th grade. However, public education adapted to the changes in the economic system and focused on turning out students to work in the wider growing industrialized society. Discipline, regimentation, time efficiency and education level completion became the core principles of education; many of these principles are still found in our current system. The end of the Second World War found the nation unprepared for the new challenges facing education.
The Baby Boom changed education forever. Never before or since has our nation faced such a large cohort to be publically educated. We approached the problem just like we had to win the war. The federal government became more and more involved, making up for the shortfall that local communities and states were experiencing. The Department of Health, Education and Welfare was founded in 1953 to address the education crisis and was broken up into two cabinet level departments in 1979 creating the Departments of Health and Human Services and the Department of Education. From the 1950s on to the present, public education has become a flash point between the politically right and the political left.
Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court ruling in 1954 began the school integration process and signaled the starting point for civil rights. From the Brown v. Board of Education ruling onward; liberal and conservative forces have lined up in opposition to each other over the secularization of schools, the funding of schools and the regulation of schools and curriculum.
Since states have sovereignty over education within their borders, as long as they meet federal mandates and regulations, they have been able to sculpt systems to maintain, more or less, local control. In the close of the 20th century, a number of states have moved to voucher programs, charter school programs, school choice programs and home schooling programs. The variety of personal choice education programs has received wider support from the political right than from the political left. There are a number of variables which attract the political right to these programs.
There isn’t one single reason for privatizing the education system. On the surface, it comes down to the general perceived universal failure of the public school model. The right wing rhetoric always begins with “doing what’s best for the students”. However, in my analysis I have determined three broad ideological categories prompting the privatization.
The first board category, represented by the anti-secularization group is primarily composed of social conservatives. They view public schools as violating the fundamental rights and beliefs of the American values system. As government control has grown, so has the imposition of secularization based on the U.S. 1st Amendment Establishment Clause. Public schools, as a government entity, are prohibited in supporting any system of religious belief. This impacts school curriculum when subjects like creationism verses secular evolution are available to explain certain phenomena. Creationism is a religiously inspired explanation, whereas, evolution doesn’t rely on religion to explain the same phenomena. Another contentious issue is the teaching of sex education. For the most part, the social conservatives don’t feel that school is the proper place to teach such a subject and if it is taught it should promote abstinence only. Many believe that teaching of sex education will promote sexual behavior outside of marriage. The issue of pregnancy termination (abortion) is yet another issue that social conservatives want schools to take a stand on supporting right to life ideologies.
Social conservatives have also determined a key issue is prayer in school. Many traditional social conservatives see this as a direct assault against G-d, confirming the belief that social liberals are attempting to indoctrinate students into atheistic beliefs and undermine the truth that America was divinely chosen by G-d. Finally, the social conservatives fault the public schools in not supporting “Traditional Family Values”; teaching moral and ethical relativity, resulting in a weakening of moral and ethical behavior.
One of the traditions of the American education system has been non-government interference in private and religious schools. As of the last three or four decades, home schooling has also grown in popularity, which is also independent of direct government oversight. Social conservatives have taken advantage of alternative education forms when they have been available and if they can afford it. The inclusion of voucher schools and home schooling has made private education available to a broader spectrum of social conservative parents. Parochial schools have always been an option and generally were subsidized by the religious institution. Now many parochial schools have become dependent on vouchers for continued survival. The use of religious schools is being used to avoid the public school secular issues as well as to take advantage of voucher programs.
The next broad category of conservatives that support the privatization of schools, are the fiscal conservatives. They believe that privatizing education will introduce competition between learning institutions, thus driving down the costs of education. Utilizing private schools will eliminate the high costs of teachers’ compensation and dry up a source of political funding by the teacher unions to liberal political candidates. Since private schools don’t require currently require government oversight and teachers are not required to be state certified, then the private school can hire teachers at a much lower expense and provide merit based rewards. It is truly a corporatist model of education.
Another reason for fiscal conservatives to support the privatization of schools is that it provides economic opportunity for establishing entrepreneurial for profit schools. This model is already explosively underway for post secondary institutions. There is no reason to believe that this won’t happen with primary and secondary education institutions. Just as with post secondary institutions that are overly dependent on student grant and loan programs, the education vouchers represent the same kind of opportunity.
In short, the fiscal conservatives see an opportunity to limit government expenditures to education and ultimately reduce taxes, while taking advantage of business opportunities.
The final broad category is that of the political right advocating Libertarianism. Dedicated libertarians want to eliminate all government funding for education and return education responsibility to that of consumers; reminiscent of the “Old pre Civil War South”. Complete control would rest with parents and families to educate their own children and it would no longer be a community responsibility. Education would become flexible and responsive to market forces and innovation; but the main goal of the ideology is to severely limit government.
Whether one is a social conservative, fiscal conservative or libertarian; the goal of ending public education holds the promise of ending liberal influence once and for all. That is the real goal of the privatization movement. But, if they are successful, I don’t think they are prepared for the unintended consequences. Without a doubt, taking American education back 200 hundred years would be devastating.