Why do Conservatives hate public schools? Reasons are legion: early childhood sex education programs focusing on “how to” guides provided by Planned Parenthood and featuring anal sex; textbooks that present a one-sided picture of America as racist, sexist, and homophobic; “zero tolerance” policies bringing suspension or expulsion to young children “caught,” for example, making pop-tarts look like guns; disciplinary policies bringing suspension or expulsion for disruptive behavior to some students but not others, strictly on the basis of race. All this and a huge bureaucracy that dehumanizes parents, warehouses children, and produces epic failures in educating for life and higher learning. But these abominations are just the tips of a very large, deep iceberg spawned from the cold waters of centralized power. These waters are fed by an ideology that disparages history, traditional values, and local control in favor of a system in which children are treated as chunks of clay, separated from any nurturing source in family and neighborhood, to be shaped by “experts” into pliant parts of a Progressive National Community.
Unfortunately, many of the supposed cures for this situation are simply forms of the disease itself. In recent decades, programs like President George W. Bush’s “No Child Left Behind” aimed to bring quality control to the increasingly nationalized education system, but merely added yet another layer of bureaucracy for delivering failure. Understandably, more and more Americans are choosing to take their children out of public schools in favor of private, parochial, and home schooling. But those most in need of educational reform—poor kids in inner city neighborhoods—don’t have the means of escape. And new programs, including “school choice” and charter schools, while of potential use, threaten to further empower national elites even as educrats work to re-regulate private and even home schooling.
Programs like school choice too often aim at the wrong problem. The “choice” provided by government-controlled markets is largely illusory. Whatever may be on the menu in terms of curricular emphasis (arts or science, for example) if we leave education in the hands of administrators and teachers trained to enforce the rules and ideology of a distant bureaucracy we will achieve very little. Moreover, the problem with public schools is not that they are “public,” in the sense that they serve and are responsible to an identifiable public. The problem is precisely that they are run by people and according to rules that are too distant from, and consequently hostile toward, our local communities.
For hundreds of years, local schooling in America thrived and helped form the culture and traditions that shaped our people. Both the idea and the practice of public education predate the republic itself. The first publicly funded school in America was founded in 1635. Throughout New England, towns and villages set up primary schools beginning in the mid-17th century.
Whether in settled cities or on the frontier, schools in America were self-consciously local affairs. Parents and town elders found a place and a teacher for their children to learn. Sometimes there was formal government support; funding might come from local taxes, local philanthropists, or school fees. Always there was a concern to help children become productive members of their own communities. Acknowledging that some would have the desire, talent, and drive to go elsewhere, those who started and ran the schools saw admission to full membership in the community at the center of education.
Today, politicians, professional educators, and administrators all tell us that the federally-regulated public school is essential to American public life—that it is the place where children from widely divergent socio-economic, racial, and ethnic backgrounds come together to learn what it means to be an American. It is understandable that Conservatives harken back to this vision as they face an education establishment determined to undermine our common culture. But we need to remember that historically American schools integrated students, not into some national community defined by ideology, but into local communities defined by tradition, history, and local relationships.
Nationalized education got its start with the famous 19th century educator, Horace Mann. Mann declared that immigrants would be taught to be Americans, and Americans would be taught to be good citizens, only in schools where professional educators instilled in them an American Civil Religion. This program included important, traditional elements teaching children about their cultural and intellectual patrimony, their nation, and their civilization. But Mann was changing dramatically the form of schooling traditional within American localities, to say nothing of the prejudice he fostered against religious and ethnic minorities.
Mann wrote at a time when massive numbers of impoverished Irish Catholics were immigrating to the United States. He, like many Americans, had a rational fear that large numbers of poor ethnics from a distinctly minority religion would harm the American character. Unfortunately, instead of working within American traditions, activating local associations, and working to promote sufficient local schooling, Mann and his allies successfully fought recent immigrants’ attempts to gain local funding for their own schools. The result, unfortunately, was an emptying out of all religion from public schools, along with a more general shift in schools’ functions, handing over power to professional educators concerned more with training national citizens than with teaching members of local communities. Over time, this shift took schooling away from Americans’ culturally rich and diverse local communities and replaced it with a homogenized system, controlled by distant bureaucrats, that undermines local self-rule and erodes local culture.
The nationalization process took decades and has never fully succeeded in stamping out local culture from all our schools. But it has brought an overall system that is destructive of community, education, and individual character.
There are clear elements necessary for full membership in the American tradition—principally acceptance of our basic model of moral life: faith, family, and freedom culminating in a life of self-reliance within active communities and the behavioral norms of our Common Law traditions. But few of these elements can be taught by professional educators in schools isolated from their communities; they require assimilation through daily interaction with people and associations making up a local life. And the attempt to teach them didactically turns these norms into an ideology—a set of abstract, “pat” answers to complicated questions that bring political indoctrination instead of genuine learning.
One of the most important victims of education’s nationalization has been the set of associations, from school boards to Parent Teachers Associations to community foundations, that once thrived in the United States. Now shackled by national requirements and the constant pursuit of federal dollars, local school systems have become among the most corrupt institutions in America. With few substantive issues to debate, local school boards spend tens of millions of dollars on unneeded vanity projects, lining the pockets of favored businesses while virtue signaling and handing over real power to corrupt union officials and soulless educrats.
The real solution to our public education problem is a return to local control, which is to say to public accountability. This will be difficult, especially because local educational infrastructure has become so worn down and corrupt. Reform’s first, essential step will bring shock and resistance because it means ending federal and even state control over local education. Genuine participation and accountability require eliminating tax support, including support provided through state “equalization” schemes that purport to make education more “fair” by redistributing tax money from one district to another. Only if the citizens of specific, small districts are in charge of raising and paying the funds they then decide how to use can we re-establish the local parental involvement essential to re-entrenching schools in their communities. Only in this way can we eliminate state and national control that insulates teachers and educrats from parents and community leaders. Only in this way can we rebuild the self-confidence and mutual trust necessary to support children in their drive to become educated members of their communities.
The sky will not fall if local communities reclaim responsibility as well as control over local education. We know, for example, that school districts spending the most per student often are the least successful in educating those students. Programs aimed at replacing broken families with politically correct programming perpetuate failure and resentment. Opportunities for local associations and families—including single-parent and other struggling families—to genuinely participate in their children’s education provide the only means by which communities and lives can be rebuilt and children set on the way to success in their jobs and, even more important, in their communities.
Bruce Frohnen, the Ella and Ernest Fischer Professor of Law, Ohio Northern University College of Law, is currently working on a book reclaiming the history and principles of American Conservatism with Ted McAllister as part of the American Project.