Over at Campaign K-12 they’re wondering, based on conflicting messages from McCain advisors, whether the Senator will “fully fund” the No Child Left Behind Act if elected president. It’s a question I’d like to see answered, but these sorts of mixed messages are a dime a dozen in political campaigns. What really captured my attention in the Meet the Press conversation containing the curious “fully-fund” nugget was this comment from Obama supporter Sen. Claire McCaskill, (D-MO), explaining why the presumptive Democratic nominee opposes school choice:
It’s, it’s about making sure we don’t undermine public education. We are who we are as a nation because we figured out how to educate our kids with public money, public education. The rest of the world has admired us from the days that we became a country, and we cannot turn our back on public education. And sometimes the word choice is code for making sure that we can skim the cream off the top into private schools and leave public schools flailing and, and in desperate need of help. And so we’ve got to make sure that our commitment is to our public education system.
Nothing aggravates me more than the constant repetition of the myth that the United States was built on public schooling, and if parents could choose private schools without having to give up their tax dollars the country would disintegrate.
We aren’t “who we are as a nation” because we figured out how to educate kids using “public money.” (Though if public-schooling advocates want to say that public dollars are what is key they should have no problem with vouchers). American kids were being educated long before either public schools or funding was the norm, and while in the colonial and early national eras there was some public funding for education, there was nothing even approaching the centralized, bureaucratically moribund system we have today. Almost all education was voluntary and people chose from options including homeschooling, tutoring, “old field schools,” for-profit writing schools, church-run schools, and more. And it worked: Adult white literacy stood at roughly 90 percent in 1840, a very high level by world standards.
Fast-forward to the present, with sainted public schooling having functioned in its top-down, fully compulsory form for about a century, and the contrast is startling. According to the latest National Assessment of Adult Literacy, only 13 percent of American adults are “proficient” in three types of literacy. 13 percent! Of course, the absolute measures of literacy are very different today than in 1840, but the nation and the world are very different places. On a relative basis, it can reasonably be said that the “public education system”—for which we are supposed to show unflagging “commitment” even if it means keeping kids out of the best schools available—is a huge step down from the nation’s true educational foundation.
Ultimately, what has distinguished the United States from the rest of the world is not its current, essentially socialist, school system—or education at all—but its commitment to individual freedom. The Declaration of Independence doesn’t “hold these Truths to be self-evident: that all Children have a right to attend a government school.” It proclaims our rights to “Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness.” The Constitution wasn’t enacted to secure “one-size-fits-all schooling,” but “the Blessings of Liberty.” Emma Lazarus’s inscription on the Statue of Liberty doesn’t invite the rest of the world to send over its “huddled masses yearning for spots at P.S. 109.” It calls for those who are “yearning to breathe free.”
It’s time for our policymakers, academics, wonks, and everyone else who works in education to stop dealing in myths and start honestly tackling some very basic questions: Was public schooling truly critical in establishing the United States? Is education driven by parental choice and autonomous schools antithetical to basic American values? Is educational freedom actually much more in keeping with our foundational ideals than public schooling? Has public schooling really been the key to social unity and upholding democracy, or has it curbed individual liberty and forced diverse peoples into conflict?
These are questions, if we want the best education for our nation and children, that we must answer not with treacly mythology but intellectual honesty. Unfortunately, precious few of our leaders or thinkers appear willing to deal with the truth.