In a recent New York Times column, “School Is for Everyone,” Anya Kamenetz lavished praise on 19th-century education reformer Horace Mann, who saw public schools as a “crucible of democracy.” His goal was to have the state take over schools and increase taxes to pay for it all.
Mann and his acolytes insisted that shifting the reins of educational power from private to public hands would “yield better teaching methods and materials, greater efficiency, superior service to the poor, and a stronger, more cohesive nation.” He even ventured to predict that if public schooling were widely adopted and given enough time to work, “nine-tenths of the crimes in the penal code would become obsolete,” and “the long catalogue of human ills would be abridged.”
On the macro level, Mann was dead wrong. Our nation, with its massive education bureaucracy, is more divided than ever, crime is skyrocketing, and we have more “human ills” than we can handle.
On the micro level, he also misses the boat. In a rebuttal to Kamenetz, former National Review writer Kevin Williamson asks why “some abstract egalitarian ideal should be given predominance over the real-world interests of actual children and young adults whose lives would be improved—not in every case, but in many cases—by access to different kinds of education better suited to their own needs and interests.”
Williamson gets to the heart of the matter. What is the primary purpose of a school? To make good citizens? To teach children how to earn a living eventually? To foster creativity?
The correct answer is that parents should be able to send their kid to a school that shares their own vision and values. The government’s vision—with bureaucrats and teacher union honchos running the show—may be very different than theirs.
In fact, Mann’s vision, nearly 200 years old now, has been fully exposed. Due to the extended COVID-related lockdowns, parents are fleeing the government education plantation in unprecedented numbers for private schools, microschools, homeschools, etc. But Kamenetz bemoans this development, claiming:
This country has seemingly never had a harder time embracing a shared reality or believing in common values. The parents who are showing up at school boards yelling about ‘critical race theory’ and pronouns are trying to get public schools to bend history, reality and values to their liking. I disagree with them vehemently, but I also want them to stay in the argument. It would be far worse if these parents went home and created their own schools. Because their children would then grow up with one set of unchallenged beliefs, while my children and the children of like-minded people would grow up with another—emerging as adults who have no hope of understanding one another, much less living together peacefully.
While Kamenetz is well-intended, her kumbaya exhortations fall flat. For starters, Mann’s vision was indeed religious. The “common school” movement was launched for the purpose of instilling Protestant values in America’s youth. Catholics, who were immigrating to this country in large numbers, were seen as a threat to the dominant religion.
And now, common schools are becoming more sectarian than ever, but the dominant religion has morphed into cultural Marxism, whose tenets include critical race theory, the 1619 Project, and sex and gender indoctrination.
So, the best way forward is to get the government out of education entirely. Ramming a one-size-fits-all, heavily bureaucratized education regimen down the throats of American families, with diktats coming from D.C. and the 50 states, just isn’t working. Families should be able to pick the best type of schooling for their children. So if a parent wants to send their kid to a school that teaches CRT, let them pay for it. As a taxpayer, I deeply resent that money I have earned goes to schools that espouse curricula I despise. It’s worth noting that as things stand now, the citizenry pays nearly $1 trillion a year for education, and with a smaller tax bite most families would have some newfound money to pay for their kid’s schooling.
What about poor families who don’t have the money to pay for their children’s education?
If a family demonstrates it can’t afford to buy food, we give them a SNAP card with which they can purchase groceries. Similarly, we can assist impoverished families by helping to subsidize their child’s education. We have Pell Grants which enable poor young people to attend college. These federal dollars go to needy students, and can be used to attend private colleges, including religious schools like Notre Dame and Brigham Young. Why not extend Pell Grants to k-12?
But can literacy be maintained without direct government involvement?
According to the U.S. Department of Education, 54 percent of U.S. adults 16-74 years old—about 130 million people—lack proficiency in literacy, reading below the equivalent of a sixth-grade level. Yet, in 1840, before the trend toward government involvement, literacy rates approached 90 percent. So it should come as no surprise that a Gallup poll in June found that only 13 percent of Republicans and 43 percent of Democrats have “a great deal” or “quite a lot” of confidence in U.S. public schools.
Those who insist—like Kamenetz and teachers’ union bosses—that public schools are necessary to foster a “common good” also come up short. As researcher Greg Forster reports, of 11 empirical studies, eight of them found private schools in choice programs produced stronger tolerance and civic values than public schools, while three found no visible difference.
I realize that a transformation to an all-private system could not happen overnight, but a 13-year phase-in would be workable. Let the kindergartners escape first, and then add a grade each year through grade 12, so by the end of 13 years, the conversion would be complete. That way, every young person now enrolled in a public school could complete her k-12 education the old-fashioned way. Also, that amount of time will be needed to help existing private schools get ready for the barrage of students they will be receiving, and nascent operators will have plenty of time to plan for their new schools.
The late Andrew Coulson summed it up perfectly in a piece he wrote in 1999:
Because public schools constitute the official government organ of education, everyone wants them to reflect their own views. In a pluralistic society, that is impossible. When one group forces its views on the public schools, it does so at the expense of all others, creating inevitable turmoil. Battles over such things as evolution vs. creation, book selection and censorship, and sex education are endemic to state-run schooling. Free-market school systems, by contrast, have allowed people to pursue both their own unique educational needs and their shared educational goals without coming into conflict with each other.
Horace Mann died in 1859. It’s time to bury his flawed idea with him. R.I.P.
Editor’s note: A version of this article appeared originally at FrontPage Magazine.