In the early days of our democratic republic, there was no organized system of education. Small schools did spring up in the 18th century, but they were primarily put together by parents in local communities with no unitary or coherent structure from one school or community to another, respectively. Needless to say, white boys were the ones to be educated almost universally; however, as time progressed through the latter part of the century, white girls were sparingly and sporadically allowed to go because they would have the most contact with infants and children. In addition to a lack of uniformity in organization, structure, and goals or objectives, the schools that did exist had no standard curriculum.
Some of the schools were free, while others had tuition and fees that parents and community members paid or contributed to in order to pay teachers, supply materials, and facilities. Given the nature of the early days of our developing republic, African Americans and indigenous peoples were not permitted to attend—even if some parents could afford the costs.
It was not until the first third of the nineteenth century that the concept of public, or common, schools emerged especially in New England and northeastern regions of the country. What was the purpose of these new schools? The primary reason for the establishment of public schools was to school the young in the meaning of citizenship and to prepare them for competing on the world stage. An expected byproduct would be to provide moral instruction, ethical decision-making, and character building. Hence, it was discerned by governmental and civic leaders that the creation of citizens demanded the development of a system of education with common instruction around the basics of the three r’s as well as the principles of fundamental comprehension of and dutiful participation in the body politic. Consequently, the federal government became integrally involved in building and supporting a public school system.
Advocates of common schools contended these academies should be free of charge and accessible to all regardless of socioeconomic status. Needless to say, at this time there was no real effort to include persons of color. Gradually, the curriculum expanded to include other subjects such as social studies, English grammar, debate, public speaking, civics, and moral behavior. Beyond these badges, what also developed was the notion that common schools should prepare youth for work and economic opportunities and solvency. Education was perceived as a way not only to reach familial and personal stability, but also to accomplish and ensure the unalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
As one would expect, there were folks who did not want to pay for other children to be educated. Still others from affluent families, for example, did not want their children to associate with persons of lower economic classes. Even some who were advocates of a system of public education that would allow for children of different economic status to commingle were nevertheless averse to crossing racial and ethnic lines.
The above notwithstanding, the strongest advocates of common schools articulated a vision in which all children would be able to attend without financial, socioeconomic, or cultural constraints. Such would prepare the country to compete adequately globally, provide children with the tools to escape from poverty and social malaise, and to reduce and resist the resort to crime, calumny, hatred, and other antinomian and misanthropic activities.
One other significant aspect of the inclination towards public schools was the prevention of certain communities having advantages over other communities by means of money, status, position, authority, etc. By establishing a singularly structured system of public education—that is to say, one that is universally conceived and accessible—with federal funding through tax dollars, the surety of a certifiable process of broad academic achievement goals was formulated and concretized before the turn of the twentieth century.
There were private and parochial schools alongside of the developing and expanding public education system, but they did not receive tax dollars: after all, public funding of education was by definition allocated to public schools. However, contrary to the tenets of the staunch broachers and defenders of the burgeoning education system, the century that had abolished slavery and made future generations of African descendants full citizens ended with the Plessy v. Ferguson decision by the U.S. Supreme Court of 1896, which asserted that racial segregation laws were constitutional as long as separate facilities were equally provided, maintained, and protected. It was a ruling that clearly defied the reality of Jim Crow discrimination in all facets of society and culture, including the system of public education.
By the end of the nineteenth century, public education of elementary schoolchildren had become firmly established in approximately three-quarters of communities across the United States. In many ways, these community schools, like religious institutions, had become places where neighborhood residents could congregate for business, social, entertainment, recreational, and other enterprising purposes.
As public education developed into the twentieth century, secondary schools became increasingly important and mandated for citizens. The concept of the educational system included the idealistic element that children learning together would improve the amenable congress of people from different backgrounds and eventuate in a more harmonious society. If it were not for the flourishing of the civil rights movements that sought to make real the promises of democracy for all citizens regardless of race and ethnicity (and eventually expanded to include other underrepresented categories of people), this grandiose intention of the more conscientious advocates of public schools would not have been largely achieved. With the 1954 U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Brown v. Board of Education that overturned the fraught policies of separate but equal legitimated by Plessy, and with the passage of landmark civil rights legislation in the 1960s, the dream of inclusivity and appreciation of diversity and pluralism lockstitched in the tapestry of the progenitors of common schools seemed closer to being realized.
The positive ethical forces that led to these progressive developments became increasingly challenged by many factors as we entered the last quarter of the twentieth and the first quarter of the twenty-first centuries: growing income inequality, emergent white supremacist backlashes, smaller government champions, economic and social class divisions, culture wars, difficulties in achieving the so-called American Dream, and development of multimedia platforms allowing for constant blathering of opinions, falsehoods, extremism, hatred, and violence. Rather than appreciating the beauty of diversity and the constructive interchange of ideas, we have increasingly entered into ideological silos that made it more difficult to engage in building a less discordant society and enhancing our educational competency in the world.
One element that increased in popularity was faultfinding regarding K-12 public education. Rather than commit to improving and supporting public education in a variety of ways, many became convinced that autonomous institutions of learning could provide a more adequate path to lifting up their ideological pet peeves and peccadillos, a place for distancing their children from categories of people they deprecated, and to assimilate their children to a worldview congruent with their own interests. For sure, there were some whose intentions were more valorous than these, but usually their perspectives fell prey to more myopic and divisive trends.
Accompanying the expansive freedom of self-flagellating opinionizing made possible by technological advances and social media, alternatives to public education such as private, parochial, and charter schools began to populate and thrive. Why cannot our children go where we parents feel they can separate themselves from others and isolate themselves from sociocultural situations they dislike? As a result, some communities started to become tales of segregation according to perceptions of the failure of public education to endorse their own multiple prejudices. Instead of seeking to ameliorate the public school system in holistic ways, many looked elsewhere and advocated for alternative schooling and the economic means to provide it for their offspring.
Nowadays, there are a number of states that are supporting the development of charter and other alternative schools with the use of taxpayer dollars to enable families to afford the costs associated with these newer entities. It is a no-brainer to understand that funneling monies out of traditional public education will increasingly erode what the system can offer and inevitably challenge families that depend upon the inexpensive learning institutions.
What is ineluctable about these alternative individual and sometimes small collectives is that certain curricular standards will have to be met that will conflict with some of the narrow criteria that spawned them. For example, a school that chooses to glamorize a particular historical era that is universally regarded as oppressive can intensify divisions in society that are contrary to the principles of unity, community, shared values, and overall comity. Denial of the horrors of African slavery, the interment camps of Asian peoples, the near genocide of indigenous peoples, the holocaust perpetrated by Nazism, the repression of women, etc., can be conveyed in ways both subtle and blatant, but should not be allowed to be taught despite the opinions of teachers, families, and other supporters. Eventually, standardization will be necessary and rigorously monitored—something that is already fundamentally in play in the current system of public education. Unless all schools become charter schools as is already happening in a couple of states, the differential educational goals, objectives, and substance of voucher programs alongside of a traditional public education network will remain very problematic. What will happen is that parental choice will nullify isolationist tendencies because evidence-based research and scholarship—in addition to the three R’s—will have to become normative. Else, the idea of a United States of America will deteriorate—which may be what some folks intend.
Project for the Beloved Community, Inc., is a not-for-profit corporation devoted to promoting justice, interpreting ethics in our society and world, and helping organizations and individuals in need of financial assistance. If you feel compelled to donate to the Project, you can do so by sending your contribution via PayPal (firstname.lastname@example.org) or CashApp ($peacenik55). Make sure to put “Project” in the memo. Thank you.