Reports that the public school system in America is crumbling are not greatly exaggerated. It took a pandemic to rip the façade off a government-run model that has not worked for a long time. As the new year gets underway, teachers unions and government authorities in multiple municipalities are at war with one another. It is not that COVID-19 caused the school system to collapse so much as it revealed it for what it is – a broken blueprint that no longer works for parents, teachers, and most assuredly children.
Thomas Jefferson is credited with calling for an education system funded by tax dollars. Luckily no one was listening, and nothing was done for about a century to advance Jefferson’s dream. In 1851, an article in The Massachusetts Teacher called for kids to be educated by professionals. “In many instances, the parents are unfit guardians of their children,” the article postulated, “the children must be gathered up and forced into school.” The very next year – in 1852 – Massachusetts passed the first laws that made attending school compulsory. New York was quick to follow in 1853, and – lo and behold – by 1918, America’s youth were forced to attend community schools at least until age 14. This was primarily done in answer to the massive influx of immigrants at the turn of the 20th century.
Most historians divide American education into four eras: The permissive era lasted from 1642 to 1821, and it was up to the parent whether a child attended school. Next came the encouraging era (1826-1851) when the government encouraged – but did not mandate – school attendance. Then from 1855 to 1980 came the compulsory era, in which the government compelled children to attend some type of formal education. Along with it, citizens – whether they had kids or not – were forced to pay taxes to subsidize schools.
The fourth and current era, which began in 1980, is known as the freedom era. School options have expanded greatly, with charter schools, school vouchers, tax credits, etc. But the hiccup here is that many municipalities fought these school choice options tooth and nail with the help of influential teachers unions. A bevy of legal challenges took place in a battle that ultimately came down to dollars and cents. Local authorities resisted most efforts that gave parents the money to control their children’s education. The government has primarily won this battle, which is the crux of the problem. Therefore, we have a freedom era that’s not so free.
It’s All About the Benjamins
The fundamental problem with government-run schools is a one-size-fits-all approach to education. It advances the notion that sitting in a room with dozens of others in the same age group will lead to quality education. Since every student is unique, this becomes a hard sell. Some learn best in small groups, others one-on-one. Some need more activity time, others not so much. This is perhaps why homeschooling has increased dramatically in recent years at all socio-economic levels. But not everyone can afford to stay home and educate their children. Thus, the root of the problem is in the financing. We’ve been funding schools and teachers when what we need to be doing is funding students. Of course, these are fighting words to the teachers unions.
If we started focusing our money on the kids, millions of parents would be free to choose how their child might be educated – private school, homeschool, or parochial school. Taxpayer dollars would no longer automatically go to public schools, forcing them to compete for students. This competition – or free-market education – is the answer to what ails the broken public school paradigm.
~ Read more from Leesa K. Donner.