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How Public Schools Came to Be and the Fight to Dismantle Them

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(Article changed on January 12, 2013 at 13:48)

(Article changed on January 12, 2013 at 13:27)

Publicly funded local schools are a universally accepted social norm.  Abandoning them would be almost unthinkable. When we stop to consider what we value in our communities, local public schools are almost always a  top consideration and a source of civic pride.

This isn't just true in the United States.  Publicly funded education has become a global norm in all advanced societies for nearly a century.  But a hundred years isn't very long in the sweeping arch of history.  Public schooling has fundamentally altered American society, yet few of us can recount how this radical change came about. How did public schools come to be? 

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Classroom circa 1900 Lakeside school

The fight to establish public schools was long and bitter, but all that remains of the battle are its echoes in history.  What we are left with today is very loud and lively debates about burdensome public school taxes, failing schools, voucher programs, charter schools, home schooling and suggestions that we make public funds available for private schools and colleges. Lost to our understanding in these frustrating debates is just how closely today's arguments follow the fault lines in the incredibly contentious battle, waged over the course of a generation, to establish public schools in America .  Below is a quote from Ellwood P. Chubberly's book on the topic written in 1919. which was much closer to the formative events.  It gives us a sense of the bitter progressive battle that took place to establish public education:

"The second quarter of the nineteenth century may be said to have witnessed the battle for tax supported, publicly controlled and directed and non-sectarian common schools. In 1825 such schools were a distant hope of statesmen and reformers; in 1850 they were becoming an actuality in almost every Northern State. The twenty-five  years intervening marked a period of public agitation and educational propaganda; of many hard legislative fights; of a struggle to secure desired legislation, and then to hold what had been secured;  of may bitter contests with church and private school interests, which felt that their "vested rights" were being taken away from them; and of occasional referenda in which the people were asked, at the next election, to advise the legislature as to what to do. Excepting for the battle for the abolition of slavery, perhaps no question has been before the American people for settlement which caused so much feeling or aroused such bitter antagonism. Old friends and business associates parted company on the question, lodges were forced to taboo the subject to avoid disruptions, ministers and their congregations often quarreled over the question of free schools, and politicians avoided the topic. The friends of free schools were at first commonly regarded as fanatics, dangerous to the State, and the opponents of free schools were considered by them as old-time conservatives or as selfish members of society."

Today there is a battle underway to undo public education as we know it.  If we fail to grasp this fact it is because we lack the historical context to recognize the attacks on public schools for what they are.  As Edmond Burke famously said, "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it".  If we hope to retain and strengthen our system of public education in America we need to place the current arguments in their historic context and, "... hold on to what was gained".

I recommend Ellwood P. Chubberly's book, "Public Education in the United States, A Study and Interpretation of American Educational History." Unlike much of the sanitized educational history books today, this was written much closer in time to the events that so radically changed our views on public education.  The book is long out of print but available on line. Some  of the book is dated, but the chapters on the history of public education provide the valuable context we need to appreciate the politics of public education today.

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Brian Lynch is a retired social worker who worked in the areas of adult mental health and child protection for many years. His work brought him into direct contact with all the major social issues of the day and many of our basic social (more...)

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