Gary K. Clabaugh, Emeritus Professor of Education, La Salle University

When America’s public schools originated they were not intended solely for ordinary people’s children. These common schools were, in theory at least, to for all children, including those who had wealthy parents. The dream was that this broad community, working and playing together, would result in bonds of friendship and respect that would build a truly American consensus.

But each state separately made decisions about schooling. And while the populace of some states, especially in New England, were generally enthusiastic about public schooling, others, especially in the South, had far too many people who opposed tax supported public education.

Unsurprisingly, the rich objected to their kids rubbing shoulders with plebeian children. They were not interested in leveling and uniting America. So the monied class continued to send their children to elite schools that were well insulated from commoners. But they were interested in controlling the often troublesome children of impoverished factory workers and the tens of thousands of immigrant kids  crowding into rapidly industrializing cities.

Men of God were another anti public school force. Many of them were upset with pioneer public schoolman Horace Mann’s idea that common schooling should empower children to decide for themselves what their religious obligations were. Make up their own mind? Not on your life! And these preachers were joined by the proprietors of private schools who had an obvious vested interest in the status quo. After all, that’s how they made their living.

Another of Horace Mann’s ideas also generated public schooling opponents. An enthusiast for the methods of Swiss educator Johann Pestalozzi, Mann advocated adjusting instruction to the individual differences of children. Why? Because he was convinced that group teaching undermined the democratic importance of the individual. This stance antagonized traditional educationists who felt the tried and true methods were more than adequate.

They shouldn’t have worried. Economic pressures forced growing city public school systems into modeling their schools on factories. And in that world teaching large groups was the only possibility.

Despite the opposition outlined above, Mann and others continued their crusade for common schools. Eventually, after nearly a quarter century of struggle, a shallow consensus emerged that common schools were a good idea for common people’s children. But there was no real consensus on the details. There were differences of opinion about funding, religious instruction, teacher qualifications, what schoolhouses should be like, the content of school books and even the proper language of instruction. So America’s common schools were built on the very shaky foundation of grandiose but vague promises of a better tomorrow. That plus the quiet support of many wealthy businessmen who were much less concerned about building community than they were with social control of the masses, especially the flood of foreign born, and the maintenance of the status quo.

The rich and influential never did send their children to the common schools. And this meant that those with power and wealth had no skin in the game. Consequently public education has always been a Thursdays child, desperately trying to remain adequate without support from the power elite. 

We should also point out that the growing numbers of Roman Catholic immigrants generally were not accommodated because the nominally “public” schools really were broadly Protestant. And, convinced the Protestantism was the basis of democracy and Catholicism of despotism, these dominant forces typically refused to give enough ground to comfortably house the Catholics. As a result, American Catholics ended up building, staffing and attending their own schools. Which, by the way, were divided ethnically.

So far as African Americans were concerned, they were systematically denied schooling in Dixie. Indeed in some southern states during slavery it was a crime to teach a negro to read and write. Things were somewhat better in the free states, but no opportunities of major consequence were offered to African-Americans. And, unlike Roman Catholics, they lacked the resources to build and staff schools of their own.

This is the sandy ground that public education is built on. It has always been a shaky proposition, lacking the resources or ability to live up to the gradiouse promises of their founding. Now we find them under assault by Donald Trump and his Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos, both of whom are convinced that choice, via charter schools and vouchers, will lead to better schools for people who cannot afford the high social status schooling they received. 

This could represent the end of the dream that traditional public education helps unify America. In the Trump/DeVos world we all will send our children into like-minded enclaves where both children and teachers will breath common air and be part and parcel of an America incapable of even talking to one another, much less reaching common goals.