Public Education

February 16, 2011

There is a faddish idea going around that it is somehow inappropriate for government to be involved in education. Among the popular schemes for tricking the American people out of their democracy, this suggestion that public education be phased out in favor of publicly funding only private or “free market” education is one of the most contemptible.

The usual suspects are pushing it—those who stand to profit by it, of course—and they are playing upon the anxieties and aspirations of good parents.

Let us remind them, and one another, of the reason we have public education as a vital part of our civic commons.

It is not, as many a liberal cynic would have it, in order to train productive and compliant workers. It is not, as many a conservative humbug might grumble, to indoctrinate young people with liberal ideologies, or to corrupt them with sex education and immoral literature.

It isn't even for the varsity sports.

We have public education because we are a republic, that is, a representative democracy. This form of government, which our nation's founders gifted to us, is one in which the people are not serfs, or subjects, or any other passive collection of human beings. Americans are citizens. We are not born in servitude to an owner, or in subserviance to a soveriegn, but in freedom to actively participate in—indeed to be—our own government.

This form of government cannot exist among a people that is illiterate, innumerate, or unschooled in civics and history, for the ignorant cannot govern themselves. So, in return for the blessings of liberty, we demand of our people that they receive the education necessary to citizenship, and provide the means in the form of public schools. For without citizens, there can be no democracy.

This is not to belittle the role of private and religious schools; these make an important contribution to their communities, and to society. But only public education is universal, and universal education is the foundation of self-government. Historically, universal education and universal franchise came side-by-side, and this is no mere coincidence. Citizenship and education are simply inseparable.

I recently read my Appomattox county property tax statement, and I gave a little smile. Of all the fees, licenses, and taxes I pay, this one stings least. My fees may just go to some agency, my income tax dollars to purposes I may disapprove, but when my dollars pay the salary of a teacher, the cost of a textbook, the maintenance of a school bus, they are buying me the blessings of liberty, and for all of us the next generation of American citizens.