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Brendan Lee: The long and troubled history of school ‘choice’

Public education passes civilization down to future generations.

(AP Photo, File) In this Sept. 26, 1957, file photo, members of the 101st Airborne Division take up positions outside Central High School in Little Rock, Ark.

The history of education in the United States can best be described as a story of social progress in the face of cultural, political and generational opposition. Progressive educator John Dewey described education in 1906 as a tool of “social renewal” in which the older generation, having lived their lives and gained experience, passes on knowledge to the rising youth.

This has been a pattern familiar to our collective history. After all, this is how humans learned not to eat poisonous plants, the process of hunting or gathering food effectively or how civilizations are built by people working together. Over time, the youth take these lessons, gather their own experience and continue the pattern forward with better and improved knowledge.

But while improved knowledge is certainly responsible for the advancement of American society today, social renewal from generation to generation is not immune to the inescapable flaws of mankind. Austrian Philosopher Karl Popper, after narrowly escaping Nazism in 1937, described human civilization as one that “has not fully recovered from the shock of its birth — the transition from the tribal or ‘closed society’ to the ‘open society’ which sets free the critical powers of man.”

To Popper, tribalism — or the mentality that excludes, discriminates or segregates individual groups based on race, religion, culture, class, etc. — is the ultimate opponent of progress towards an open and democratic society. Within this framework, education and social renewal can be either products of tribalism, or products that help society advance beyond tribalism. This is the story of American education and the context with which we find ourselves discussing education today.

As a generational story, we can see how access to publicly funded education mirrored the social progress of the United States, moving beyond tribalism and towards the open society. Like every nation of imperfect people in history, the basic structures of our society appeared very tribalistic in the beginning — we built our houses of government and education using enslaved labor, our school curriculum gave way to religious sectarianism and the doors of the classroom often appeared out of reach to the poor and marginalized of society.

Indeed, from the moment Thomas Jefferson penned the famous words, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal,” the struggle to jettison our tribalism and build a country that gave access and opportunity to all people became our mountain to climb. With every successive generation, access and opportunity improved in the face of strong cultural, political and religious opposition.

Private education has a complicated history in its relationship to social progress. In the beginning, the ability to obtain a quality education (like the right to vote) was largely restricted to white wealthy families who could afford to send their children to private academies. The doors of learning were mostly shut to the poor and marginalized of society.

At times, charity schools and private institutions were at the forefront of instigating change in small ways, opening access to education for African Americans and women — as was the progressive case of Oberlin College in the mid-1800s. However, more common are the instances in American history when private schools were weaponized for political purposes by those seeking to resist social change.

We see a familiar pattern of weaponization develop in response to the democratic fervor spread after the American Revolution. When Horace Mann developed the first publicly funded Common School system to serve those turned away by private academies, putting Thomas Jefferson’s words front and center, wealthy white families resisted sending their taxes to fund educational opportunities for the poor and marginalized.

Similarly, when the doors of education were opened to formally enslaved Black Americans after the Civil War, white southerners resisted the idea of racially integrated public schools. To the dismay of Common School advocates, white parents pulled their children out of the fledgling state education system in the South and instituted a wave of private schools with only white admissions, opening the door to a dual system of racially segregated schools across the country.

Private donors secured scholarships for white students through the Peabody Fund, while money for black public schools in the South was cut to one-third the number of white schools. For nearly 100 years, the façade of “separate but equal” became the rallying cry of opponents to integrated public education in the South and Midwest until segregation was officially declared unconstitutional by the Supreme Court in 1954 with Brown vs. Board of Education.

Since the Brown v. Board decision, private schools were once again weaponized by parents resisting social change and integrated public education. As the federal government began to enforce the Supreme Court ruling, white communities fought violently against Black student admissions in Little Rock, Arkansas, and Oxford, Mississippi. In the years following, private school enrollment in the South erupted to nearly 250,000 students. From the 1960s to the early 1980s, parents used the religious protections of the First Amendment to avoid social change and integration by sending their students to religious private schools with restrictive admissions.

It wasn’t until the Nixon, Carter and Reagan administrations began threatening the tax exemption status of Bob Jones University, that private institutions began eliminating discriminatory admissions practices across the country.

Private schools across America today continue to have a diversity problem. In a recent study published by U.S. News, of the 5.7 million students attending private elementary schools and high schools in 2017, nearly 70% enrolled were white. Discriminatory admissions practices continue to prevent access to private education for LGBTQ+ students, as well as students with learning or physical disabilities.

In 2023, a new wave of resistance to public education has spread across the country — this time weaponized through school vouchers, presented as “School Choice.” Advocates of these bills ignore the historical context of their movement, instead presenting public education as a failed system that should make way for privatization. However, through a historical lens, educators see the truth.

Just as some parents in the American south weaponized private education to resist racially integrated schools, some parents today continue a familiar pattern in attacking the Diversity, Equity and Inclusion initiatives of public schooling, the teaching of black history they term “critical race theory,” the secularization of school practices and symbols placed in classrooms to make LGBTQ students feel safe and included.

Rather than embracing the open society in all its diversity, sponsors of the school choice movement would prefer American schools revert back to their tribalistic origins — a system that embraced religious sectarianism, a segregated history and science curriculum and denied access to the rural, the poor and the marginalized.

One only needs to look at the contemporary cost of private education, the restrictive admissions practices, the location of private schools, and the solutions presented in private meetings by school voucher advocates to understand who is really given a “choice” in this proposed system. Those left behind will undoubtably be the poor, the marginalized, the rural, and the growing number of students with learning disabilities.

Once again, Americans are forced to confront the words of Thomas Jefferson. At the very basic level, public education provides equal opportunity and access to education for all — it is where democracy is practiced among our children. It becomes a space in which students of all racial, religious, sexual and cultural backgrounds come together to learn about our shared history and develop the tools needed to work together and move our country forward as future leaders.

When we have political debates about where school funding should go, we must consider the generational impact of our investment as a practice of social renewal. Over the next 50 years, what will increased investment in private education with separate curriculum standards, separate oversight and separate practices of inclusion do to the social understanding of our children? Will they learn to value the open society and democracy in a system that restricts how and what they learn, who is allowed to sit next to them, and how civil discourse and social advocacy are allowed to take place?

As conservative private institutions further entrench themselves in nationalism and religious sectarianism, I fear the outcome of these investments. If we truly value our founding principles and our association with democracy, it is the opinion of this writer that we should invest in public education and resist the weaponization of private schooling.

(Jay Drowns/UVU Marketing) Brendan Lee

Brendan Lee is a history instructor at Utah State University. His research focuses on the history of American education, politics and social movements in the 19th and 20th centuries.