Giving thanks for public education

Our public education system has been criticized for many things, but today, I want to pause to think about what a remarkable system it is.

This year, a record number of 49.8 million students will be attending about 99,000 public elementary and secondary schools.  Altogether, our public school systems employ 3.3 million teachers and spend $543 billion annually.  We have a teacher to student ration of 15.2 to 1, down from 16:1 from 10 years ago, and we are expected to spend $10,844 per student this year, up from $9,683 from two years ago.

Education is not the only business of the schools.  Students must be transported somehow from their homes to schools. In 2005-2006, 55.1% of students were transported at public expense, to the tune of $18.87 billion.  Students must eat lunch in school.  The National School Lunch Program, run by the Department of Agriculture, feeds more than 30.5 million children each school day with a total expenditure of $9.3 billion in 2008.

To be sure, the quality of our education system lags behind that of other developed nations.  Our schools suffer from grave problems of inequality and inefficiency.  Only 72% of our students in our public education system are deemed “on track” academically for their age and grade level.  Only 98% of our adults are literate, compared to 100% in other developed nations.

Nonetheless, we have come a long way.  The scale and complexity of our education system is breathtaking when you consider how young our nation is, and how differently we conceived of education merely two centuries ago.  At the founding of our nation, access to education was by and large only open to the wealthy and the nobility.  When Thomas Paine advocated free universal education, his idea was considered radical and unattainable.  Neither the U.S. Constitution nor the Amendments mention school or education, and the power to regulate education was reserved for the states via the Tenth Amendment.

But sometime around mid-1800s, the idea took hold that the state should take responsibility in educating its citizenry.  By 1918, 150 short years after Paine advocated his “radical” idea, mandatory school attendance laws existed in all states.  By 1919, all states have laws providing for the transportation of children to schools.

Massachusetts bears special mentioning as a constant champion of public education. When it was still a colony, it established the first grammar school, and was also the first one among colonies to require every town that has at least 50 families to establish schools.  In 1827, it became the first state to require the establishment of a public high school open to all students in every town.  In 1852, it was the first state to enact laws that required school attendance.

The idea of public education is not a new one.  Plato’s Republic advocated compulsory education for all children in the polis so they could learn virtue and the state could sort them into different classes and professions.  The Aztecs, too, established mandatory schools for their male children where they received religious instructions and learned how to read and write.  Protestant clergymen advocated compulsory education to enable their congregation to read the Bible themselves.

But there is something new in the magnitude of the project that we have undertaken.  What is also new is our reasoning for why people should be educated.  Plato, the Aztecs, and Protestant clergymen wanted universal education because they saw education as a tool for the state or the church to instill desirable values into its students.  Their conception of education sometimes smacked disturbingly of brainwashing.  It is no surprise that communist countries were also zealous in establishing free and universal education for their children.

But we in a free and democratic society have no such narrow requirements for our students and no such strictly-defined goals of what schools ought to teach.  As a society, we provide this service to our children, not only because we believe that it would make them better citizens and more useful for our country.

We provide it because education and the chance to succeed should not be restricted to those with means to enjoy it, but be open for all who have the desire and the capacity.  We believe in a basic equality and the human potential to excel.  And yes, we also believe that when all children are given this opportunity, we will be a better society as a result.

Let us give thanks to our public schools.  Let us give thanks to our idea of public education.

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2 Responses

  1. Stumbled upon this post and really like it. Let’s also thank our public school teachers. My 8th grade social studies teacher changed my life.

  2. Amen to that!

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