What the common school was — and what it has become

Jay Bookman at The Atlanta Journal-Constitution is among the more faithful opponents to school vouchers and has frequently criticized a Georgia measure, as he did today, as representative of “another step in an incremental, largely undeclared assault on public education …” Leaving aside Bookman’s hyperbole, his current argument is a useful entry point for discussing the historical nature of public education. Specifically, the emergence of additional public and publicly funded private learning options brings us largely full circle to the educational choices at the “beginning of the American experiment” that the AJC columnist romanticizes about. More to the point, Bookman isn’t quite accurate when he writes:

From the beginning of the American experiment, public schools have been understood as a mechanism of assimilation and a means of giving us a shared understanding. They have been the ‘common schools,’ the place where as children we are exposed not just to a common curriculum but to others unlike ourselves.

Would that it were so. American education evolved within the American experiment into the early 19th century as an enterprise that recognized little distinction between “public” and “private.” Efforts to centralize education into the “common school” we know today did not proceed without challenges. Indeed, the earliest attempts in administering a public education in New York took root in the state’s “permanent school fund,” which supported church schools and charitable groups that provided free education for the neediest children. The idea of a common school didn’t emerge until Horace Mann, toward the middle of the 19th century, embarked on what educational historian Lawrence A. Cremin called a “campaign of public education about public education.”

In 1837, Mann helped to establish the Massachusetts Board of Education, the first centralized educational institution of its kind in the nation. Education was largely parochial at the time, and Mann used his position as the board’s first secretary to institute a state-directed curriculum, a uniform training ground for teachers and a method of collecting data on schools. Legislators then resisted what they felt was an encroachment on the eduational diversity found in the towns and districts and feared that Mann’s reforms would result in a loss of “religious liberty … for there would be but one church,” as Boston University educational policy professor Charles L. Glenn noted in The Myth of the Common School.

But Mann’s common school became a reality. Cremin writes in American Education, “[Mann] articulated a characteristic American theory of education that was destined to prevail for more than a century.” But there have been many challenges to that theory from both the political left and the political right, and critics such as Bookman may be more persuasive if they heed that before dismissing reforms away with rhetorical flourishes. From the mid- to late 20th century, libertarian economists such as Milton Friedman and liberal academics such as Christopher Jencks and John E. Coons worked to shatter the ideal of the common school. In fact, Coons might ask Bookman why it’s OK to let wealthier families opt out of the valued “mechanism of assimilation” to pursue a private alternative while leaving the poor with only the “common curriculum.”

I flirt with this historical context because it’s too often missing from the debate over education reform. Bookman is among many critics to assail vouchers as an absolute threat to public schools, and their concern over the democratic ideal of education should be taken seriously. But it might inform the debate if they recognize that the democratic ideal today includes many options besides the traditional neighborhood school. Roughly one of every three public schoolchildren in Florida, for instance, attends a school other than the one tied to their ZIP code. About 315,000 take advantage of school district “open enrollment” policies. A quarter-million attend magnet schools or similar special programs and nearly 100,000 take online courses from the Florida Virtual School. About 140,000 attend charter schools and about 54,000 low-income or disabled students attend a private school with public assistance.

Maybe the Georgia Senate Majority leader was right to table his voucher bill, but the measure was hardly the zero-sum game for public education that Bookman implies. It would have been only one additional tool for Georgians to consider in a menu of educational options. Maybe Mann was right to transcend the parochial interests at “the beginning of the American experiment,” but we could do worse than return to a time when public education was better defined by a diversity of education providers.