A study in 2003 by a researcher at Yale University revealed that more than 50 percent of first-year college students couldn't produce papers free of grammatical errors--in simple language, they can't write. Eighty percent of graduating high school seniors say they will never again voluntarily read another book. Only one-third of U.S. students are proficient readers; two-thirds lack sufficient reading ability to comprehend novels, textbooks, and other forms of "complicated writing."
Democracy requires an educated middle class for its survival. At its most simple level, alone among political systems, democracy requires citizens to vote for the country's leaders and policies. If you can't read the ballot, if you don't know enough math to understand the economic argument a politician is making, if you don't know the history of the country and our laws, how can you decide how to vote?
Alexis de Tocqueville came to America in 1834 to figure out how Americans were making democracy work. Along the way he met with a pig farmer, just a simple country bumpkin by de Tocqueville's reasoning, and asked him about international politics. And this farmer went into an insightful, knowledgeable rant about French politics. De Tocqueville's conclusion was that a well-educated populace was essential to democracy--and that, unlike France in that era, we had one here.
Jefferson agreed. He advocated a national program of free education up to and including university. In an 1824 letter, he explained why:
"This degree of [free] education would . . . give us a body of yeomanry, too, of substantial information, well prepared to become a firm and steady support to the government."True to his word, Jefferson started the University of Virginia to provide free higher education to the yeomanry, which is what the middle class was called back in the 1700s. The state university system grew slowly over the years and really picked up under FDR.
But that didn't last long.
Governor Ronald Reagan ended free enrollment at the last state university system to offer it, the University of California, in 1966. Today government funding for higher education is at minimal levels, particularly compared with Europe and Japan, where in most cases university educations are free or nearly free. Although there are still some educational benefits for GIs, they're hard to accumulate, track, and qualify for (and must be paid for in most cases). Under George W. Bush, even the student loan program has been cut significantly, and eligibility for grants to low-income students-- called Pell Grants--has decreased dramatically; in 2004 alone, for example, Bush cut eighty thousand students off the eligibility list for Pell Grants.
Now the Bush administration wants to privatize K-"12 education, as well. Bush advocates replacing free public education with "tuition vouchers" good at private schools, including parochial schools and for-profit schools. His No Child Left Behind Act set up thirty-seven ways public schools could fail. A failing school is sanctioned under the act with a loss of funds--so that schools that need the most help get the least. By September 2004, 36 percent of California's schools had already been put on that list. Instead of being a program to improve public education, No Child Left Behind was designed to kill the public school system.