This post is from July 4, 2013. I’ve updated it to reflect the current year and made a few other minor changes.
“The whole people must take upon themselves the education of the whole people and be willing to bear the expenses of it. There should not be a district of one mile square, without a school in it, not founded by a charitable individual, but maintained at the public expense of the people themselves.” — John Adams
The quote above from John Adams, who began his adult life as a school teacher in Massachusetts, is a clear indication of his belief in the importance of a public education system which would educate everyone…by “the whole people” for the benefit of “the whole people.” He also specifically declares that it is to be done at public expense — public funding for public schools.
On the 240th anniversary of the declaration of our nation’s independence it’s worth noting that public education is not something new. It’s one of the basic foundational institutions of our democracy supported by the authors of the nation.
Adams himself was well educated and cared about public education. He made two assertions which would likely dismay “reformers” in their quest to privatize public education. First, as the quote above makes clear…
…the federal government has a clear responsibility for education that includes paying for it.
That a primary purpose of education is to “raise the lower ranks of society nearer to the higher.”
The public pays for it. The public supports it. The purpose is to equalize the education of the citizenry.
The education of the citizenry was so important that even Adams’ political rival, Thomas Jefferson, declared in his 1806 State of the Union address that the government should support public education.
…a public institution can alone supply those sciences which though rarely called for are yet necessary to complete the circle, all the parts of which contribute to the improvement of the country and some of them to its preservation.
Jefferson believed the elementary school was more important than the university in the plan because, as he said, it was “safer to have the whole people respectfully enlightened than a few in a high state of science and many in ignorance as in Europe” (as cited in Peterson, 1960, p. 241). He had six objectives for primary education to bring about this enlightenment and which highlighted what he hoped would make every person into a productive and informed voter:
- “To give every citizen the information he needs for the transaction of his own business;
- To enable him to calculate for himself, and to express and preserve his ideas, his contracts, and accounts, in writing;
- To improve, by reading, his morals and faculties;
- To understand his duties to his neighbors and country, and to discharge with competence the functions confided to him by either;
- To know his rights; to exercize with order and justice those he retains; to choose with discretion the fiduciary of those he delegates; and to notice their conduct with diligence, with candor, and judgment;
- And, in general, to observe with intelligence and faithfulness all the social relations under which he shall be placed.” (as cited in Peterson, 1960, p. 239)
Adams and Jefferson, so often on opposite sides of political arguments, were in accord when it came to supporting public education. The nation needed a publicly funded school system which would educate all. Public education was an institution necessary for the maintenance of our democracy.
WE STILL NEED PUBLIC SCHOOLS
Five years ago Peggy Zugibe, a school board member from New York, wrote…
In the 1800s, when our country took in more immigrants and it became more diverse, education reformers saw public education as a means of creating productive citizens, ending poverty and crime and unifying an increasingly diverse population. Those societal goals are as relevant today as they were then.
Those goals are as relevant in 2016 as they were in 2011.
The publication asserts that public education is expected to…
fulfill certain public missions that go beyond the purely academic purposes of all schools, public and private.
These public missions can be characterized by six main themes:
- To provide universal access to free education
- To guarantee equal opportunities for all children
- To unify a diverse population
- To prepare people for citizenship in a democratic society
- To prepare people to become economically self-sufficient
- To improve social conditions
Those six missions of public education are as important now as they have been at any time during our nation’s history. Channeling public funds to privately run charters, or to parochial and other private schools through vouchers is not the way to support public education.
IMPROVE PUBLIC EDUCATION
Public schools, supported by public dollars, accept all children. If a charter or private school cannot provide for a wheelchair-bound child’s physical needs the child returns to a public school. If a charter or private school cannot provide for the needs of a child with special academic needs the child returns to a public school. Public schools must provide for all children…those with special needs, those of average ability, those who have no home, those who are hungry, and those whose language skills are inadequate to communicate.
We don’t improve our democracy by redirecting public dollars to private and charter schools, many of which do not accept all children.
- lowering class sizes.
- providing a well rounded, rich curriculum including the arts, civics and physical education.
- providing resources including a fully stocked library/media center with qualified librarians.
- providing social support including qualified counselors, nurses, psychologists and social workers.
- addressing inequities which enrich schools for the wealthy while providing scant resources for schools in high poverty areas.
- providing developmentally appropriate education (not test driven) beginning in pre-school.
- respecting and developing professional educators who are paid at comparable rates as others with their education and experience, who have time to adequately plan lessons and collaborate with colleagues, and who are provided with relevant, high quality professional development.
- providing appropriate services to all students with special physical, academic and language needs as required by the law.
- providing facilities that are well-maintained and show respect for those who work and go to school there.
- engaging parents to fully participate in their child’s education.
- fully funding public schools.
We need to fix our public schools…not close them. On that, I think Adams and Jefferson would agree.