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Guest Column

Public Education: Is it what the Founders intended?

By: Adelpha Pallas
web posted April 28, 2010
GUEST COLUMN – Some of the most controversial issues in educational debate today lie with appropriation of taxpayer funding for education.  Some people may say that typical parents are not as involved in education as they should be; however, these volatile financial issues surrounding parent choice, school vouchers, charter school funding, and the social debate surrounding public vs. private schools would indicate this assumption is incorrect.

The root of the discussion surrounds protecting public education funding from being drained away by other school options.  Parents who view public schools as inefficient or intrusively presenting moral issues, i.e. same sex marriage, sexual education in elementary grades, and anti-Christian views have applied pressure on political entities to offer parental choices and provide taxpayer funding for those choices.  These vocal parents would like to return to Jefferson and Mann's original vision for public education, though with equality for the sexes and races.

When the earliest American proponents of public education (Jefferson, 1778; Mann, 1848) presented their reasons for it, they wanted to see all male, free Americans educated for common reasons of equalizing social classes, teaching good citizenship, ethical and moral conduct, and promoting democratic unity among the working classes and landed gentry (Gutek, 2005).  Jefferson surely did not envision the entire population receiving public education as he described his 100 schoolhouses as "a house of brick or stone, for the said grammer school, with necessary offices, built on the said lands, which grammer school-house shall contain a room the school, a hall to dine in, four rooms for a master and usher, and ten or twelve lodging rooms for the scholars" (Jefferson, 1778, SECT. XI).   His building and land was paid for by the public treasury; however, the school expenses were to be divided among the scholars or their families (see SECT. XV).  Furthermore, Jefferson stipulated the removal of scholars who were deemed "less promising" and undeserving of the "public foundation" (see SECT. IVIII). 

Horace Mann (1848) would have cringed at the relative nature of morality espoused by the 2010 federal government.  He would have staggered to see spiritual training entirely removed from public education today, as he strongly advocated for public schooling as a primary method of establishing citizenship and sound moral values among the nation's population.  Mann strongly opposed involving schools in political agendas and stated "that if the tempest of political strife were to be let loose upon our Common Schools, they would be overwhelmed with sudden ruin" (see p. 12). 

Mann was a noble character who also believed that on election days, men should "approach them, not only with preparation and solicitude, but with the sobriety and solemnity, with which discreet and religious-minded men meet the great crises of life" (see p. 11).  Somehow, if Mann knew that today's political activists were picking up derelicts off the streets and hauling them to the polling booths, he would be apoplectic!

While both Jefferson and Mann had a high vision for public education, neither gentleman would have begun their initiatives if they could have seen exorbitant taxpayer expense for it, as well as the deterioration of moral and ethical training involved in public education today.

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