Who Controls Public Schools?

By January 1, 1970Blog

In America education has taken on many of the characteristics of a religion: the state is God and the school is that institution in which good (i.e. productive) servants of God (citizens) are formed. Democracy, we have been told since the time of Jefferson, can succeed only if the average man is educated; and in turn, general education will insure a virtuous democratic state. So intrenched is this faith that anyone challenging it with facts (for instance, the best educated country in the world in the 1920s and 30s was Germany) is treated in somewhat the same way that the Vatican treated Galileo. Poor parents in the slums as well as middle class parents who can’t afford both skiing and scuba diving vacations and private school tuition are forced by law to submit their children to the indoctrination carried out in the state schools.

There is nothing particularly surprising about this state of affairs; almost all cultures have sought to maintain themselves through rituals which indoctrinate the young. Whether it consists of old warriors teaching the young to hunt and fight or professors teaching students the intricacies of physics, education has always been dominated by the ideas and ideals of those who rule the society. True, before the 20th century a state’s claim to legitimacy, with a few brief and horrific exceptions, rested in part in its adherence to spiritual reality; this was so either in fact (England’s established religion) or in practice (the North’s campaign against slavery was religious, sometimes to the point of being illegal-supposedly it was Christ’s truth, not Lincoln’s or Sumner’s, that was marching on). Education has always reflected this spiritual claim, has, in fact, insisted upon it as a way of maintaining the security of the state.

Traditionally, then, whoever has paid for education has controlled it. Kind of payment might vary-the farmer and artisan invested their time, the church and crown their money—but a return on the investment was expected: the farmer through his sons could enlarge his holdings, the artisan his trade; the church and crown could increase their dominance. Machiavelli may have articulated but he certainly didn’t invent the first principle of government: the duty of authority to maintain itself. A democracy is no exception: “the people” pay for education; if they do not control it, they will lose their power.

I’m sorry to belabor such truisms but in the modern world most often the first thing we lose sight of is the obvious. And nowhere is this more true than in the current controversy over religion in the schools. On one level the debate seems silly-poor oppressed little atheists whose lives are ruined because they have to listen to the prayers of their classmates. And even when the context widens, the silliness remains-Jews, Hindus and Moslems made wretched by manger scenes in public parks. But fanaticism always produces a certain amount of silliness (along

with a large amount of terror and violence) and absurd as the attack on any public display of religious belief might
seem, underlying the attack is a very dangerous fanaticism.
As recently as the War Between the States the government could appeal to spiritual authority in its drive to stamp out slavery but though remnants of that fervor have lingered into the 20th century, particularly in the prohibition and civil rights movements, the state has tended to rule more and more through “Constitutional rights.” The main result has been a confusion produced by an appeal to a document as the final arbiter when in fact that document, along with the rights and freedoms it proclaims, was derived primarily from the Western Christian tradition. In this light it is interesting to note that the Constitution says nothing about education. The reason for this omission is not hard to find: the farmers, with few exceptions, saw education as a family matter; the individual’s right to property-the principle upon which the Constitution rests-precluded the state’s tampering with children without the consent of their owners (their parents). Thus both New England and the South resisted state education. New England does not concern us here, but we should note in passing that though the region early on required schooling of all children, the schooling was carried out by churchmen (the region still being more or less a theocracy); and Horace Mann, the father of public education in this country, always insisted on religious values.

The South was even more adamant in its resistence. Jefferson may have advocated public schools but he was unsuccessful (except at the university level) in establishing any. In the South education was the prerogative of the family, and the region was suspicious of state intervention in such a personal matter. And unlike New England, which administered education through the central authority of the church, in the South, where minimal schools were established, they were always under local control, both in theory and fact.

 One should not conclude from this, as do contemporary “educationists” who equate interest in education with state schools, that the South (which produced some of the best educated men in the country) was uninterested in education. Schooling was carried out within the family and ranged from liberal education among the wealthy, often culminating in sons going off to read law, to practical education among farmers 

nd tradesmen. Illiteracy was no problem in a rural society and the Constitution had built into it a system (the electoral college) which took illiteracy into account. On all levels, even in the fledging public schools-communities from time to time hired school teachers-education was unabashedly Christian. Truth, be it derived from Cicero or from

the insistence upon the relationship between success and willpower, was always connected, directly and indirectly, with Christian vision.

The nationwide drive for state schools, which gained momentum in the second half of the nineteenth century, was based upon two assumptions: 1) in an industrial society only education can free the individual from poverty, misery and unhappiness; 2) state schools can shape an increasingly pluralistic society, devoid of any common religious bond, into a “nation.” The aim of state schools was to produce productive men and women loyal to the ideals of American democracy.

The schoolhouse became as omnipresent as the courthouse; indeed, the two were linked through the religion of democracy, which,
it was said, needed an educated public to survive. The ideal of public education, then, is based upon the principle that education can be divorced from religion or, put another way, that moral values can be separated from spiritual values. As we will see, such a separation is necessary to the federal government’s use of schools to indoctrinate the young. The education establishment which operates throughout the country is, for ideological and financial reasons, the staunchest advocate of this principle and thus the main instrument through which the central government exerts its control.

So widespread education, like so much else in the modern South, began during Reconstruction and its aftermath. But well into the twentieth century the South, which had good reason to be suspicious of the ideals of the nation, resisted public schools; the legend of the Yankee school teacher trying to subvert the natives became a part of Southern folklore (and like most legends there was a good deal of truth in it, although the school teacher was likely to be a Southerner who had adopted Northern ideals, an academic scalawag). Other, non-ideological factors militated against public schools–thanks to Reconstruction policies, the region remained dismally poor and it burdened itself with the additional expense of a dual education system.

The New South movement, which was based in large measure upon nationwide ideals, aided greatly
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the establishment of state schools, but just as important was the fact that the South was an overwhelmingly Protestant region. Protestantism was significant in the rapid development of public education throughout the country because the Protestant “work ethic” in many ways dovetailed with the capitalist ideal, which was in turn linked with the “American way.” And in the early stages of secularization the central planners aligned themselves strongly with Protestantism. Not until the New Deal, when intellectuals and central planners replaced entrepeneurs and inventors as the heroes of society, did the true nature of the secular ideal reveal itself.

My point is that the South accepted the national myth of the separation of church and state in education because public schools in the region were in reality pro-testant schools. This was the case well into the 1950s even in so “progressive” a city as Atlanta. I attended public schools in the city from 1944 to 1956. Class days began with a reading from the Bible and a prayer of the spontaneous fundamentalist variety; the superiority of doing over be-
ing (“faith without words is dead”) was an implicit-and sometimes explicit-principle in all courses; a personal and direct relationship between the individual and God, unsullied by any ritual or mediating institution, was extolled; I don’t remember studying a single Catholic or Jewish social theorist. Evangelists spoke in the school and we were exhorted to attend revivals.

Was anyone persecuted, coerced, humiliated? I don’t think so. The few Jews and Catholics in the school took it in stride and participated wholeheartedly in sports and extracurricular activities. At most they seemed bemused by the strange religious enthusiasm of their Protestant classmates; they were probably more corrupted by the Protestant insistence on hard work, thrift and cleanliness than by any prayer or Bible thumping revivalist.

By the end of World War II, then, the South had a fairly well-established system of Protestant education which was supported and financed by the state. There were some private schools-parochial schools in cities like New Orleans and Savannah and prep schools for the children of the wealthy-but they merely reenforced one of the central myths of education: the state provides schools in which all classes of children mix and mingle, thus insuring a broad social experience which will prepare the child for life. What the public schools in the South acknowledged in practice if not in principle was that education has as much to do with social values as it has to do with intellectual achievement.

The major mistake made by the Protestants in the South was their acceptance of the state as the instrument through which they could establish and maintain their spiritual values. Of course, to a certain extent-because the schools reflected a homogeneous society in which religious and secular values were inseparable-Southerners fooled themselves. But there were leaders in the South who should have known better, who should have seen, at least as late as World War II, that there was something wrong with the state forcing little children to pledge allegiance to the flag. The Supreme Court quite rightly sided with the Jehovah Witnesses in that case; it did not rule, however, that no one in the school could pledge allegiance to the flag; something very similar to that was to come later.
What is clear is that the opponents in the controversy over religion in the schools have at least one thing in common: both sides believe that schools should foster social and moral values in the young. As we have seen, public schools from the beginning were designed to turn people of divergent races and nationalities into “Americans” through a separation of moral and spiritual values. The illusion that such values can be separated was maintained as long as the schools were predominantly Protestant; this was possible even in many areas of the North and West because the Catholic Church set up parochial school systems which were actually alternate public school systems. The real crisis in public education began after the war when liberal intellectuals, brought into positions of influence by Roosevelt’s New Deal, began to equate their ideology with the “American ideal.” The most crucial event in the ascendency of their ideas was Brown vs the Board of Education (1954).

As everyone knows, what was to have far-reaching effects was not only the decision itself-that segregated schools are unconstitutional-but the arguments upon which the decision was based. The court could have ruled on Constitutional grounds alone (Harlan’s position in his dissent in Plessy vs. Ferguson, i.e. the Constitution is color blind), but in appealing to sociological evidence the court may have been more cunning than incompetent. As Edward Erler has pointed out (National Review, Sept. 7, 1984), in Brown the court did not reverse Plessy (it never even referred to Harlan’s dissent); had the court ruled that the Constitution is color blind, the chain reaction that Brown set off would have been defused at the start. In applying the “stigma test” (segregated schools stigmatize minority children) the court opened the door to affirmative action and bussing.

Bussing is a central planner’s dream come true: the power to move human beings around according to the dictates of statistics. What is at issue, finally, is not whether every school in a city or county should contain exactly the same proportion of black to white; no, what is at issue is whether any institution has the power
to stand between the individual and the central government in Washington. Bussing should be seen in relation to other contemporary debates: pornography (the community is inferior to the individual); women’s rights (the family is inferior to the individual); capital punishment (the law is inferior to the individual). Antiabortionists, by shifting from a defense of the family against the individual to a defense of the right of the unborn child against the right of the mother, have provided an example of how one must do battle with the state these days. What is at work in each of these cases is a familiar secular strategy: an unrealizable utopian ideal (in this debate, perfectly balanced schools) is used to exert the power of the state over an institution within it, in this instance the family. Brown led to bussing which firmly established two principles: 1) the primary function of public education is to inculcate the values of the state, and 2) community control of education— the old realizable ideal of the neighborhood school— is dead. Obviously, the second principle issues inevitably from the first. In each of these controversies a noble cause-the rights of the individual must be protected-produces a hidden result: the abolition of any institution that stands between the federal government and the individual. Shorn of the defense of mediating institutions, the individual will soon discover his impotence in the hands of the all-pow’erful state.

In the South the integration controversy obscured for a generation the basic ills of public education: sorry colleges of education, incompetent teachers and administrators, smorgasbord curricula, breakdown in family structure leading to a breakdown in school discipline re-enforced by a desperate permissiveness, etc. The list goes on and on and everyone has his favorite “cause”-and also his favorite “cure”: better discipline, a return to basics, higher pay for teachers, merit pay, abolishing or restructuring colleges of education, removing education course requirements that bar BA and BS graduates from teaching, etc.

Federal, state and foundation commissions have labored long and hard to tell us what we already knew. Inevitably, education “experts” (the very people who got us into the present mess) have been hired to come up with solutions; otherwise sane people hold up the Japanese education system as a model to be emulated; others advocate a return to corporal punishment as though paddling already physically or psychologically abused children is going to help; such panaceas as prayer, drugs, homework, longer school days and years, yearly evaluation of teachers, exit exams are suggested; abolish the teaching of evolution, force children who can’t read and write or add and subtract to learn to use computers; require more art and music, cut out the frills. Not even Swift could do justice to the situation.

In the midst of such chaos it is almost amusing to see Congress, the administration, state legislatures and pressure groups all over the country in turmoil over prayer in the public schools. But what that turmoil tells us is that public education is still in a state of transition from the old diversity of local control to the new uniformity that the central planners wish to impose. How else explain the worship of SAT scores or the shock expressed over the fact that rural Southern school teachers are paid so much less than their counterparts in New York or Los Angeles? How else account for the ludicrous attempt to force Amish children into public schools? In the South the Protestant majority depended on the state to enforce its values; now it is discovering what that dependence ultimately means. And in turning to the Constitution to solve its problems, the South is playing into the hands of the central planners. One thing we should know better than anyone else is that the Constitution, like the Bible, can be used to prove anything.

One example will suffice: the “stigma test” developed in Plessy and Brown is now being applied in cases involving prayer in the public schools; the secularizers oppose voluntary prayer (which would seem to escape even their reading of the First Amendment) on the ground that it alienates and humiliates (stigmatizes) the non-Christian child. But when they turn to the problem of sex education, they take a different tack. All public schools, they contend, should offer sex education. Parents who object on religious grounds may request that their children not attend the class. In this instance the stigma test is not applied; somehow or other it is Constitutional to alienate and humiliate a religious minority.
In the South, at least, we should be able to see the controversy over public schools for what it is: another “crusade” used by the federal government in its relentless drive to eliminate all institutions that stand between the government and the individual. The crusade against slavery effectively destroyed states rights; the crusade against segregation effectively destroyed local control of schools (community rights), an inevitable development since the states had no power to intervene. The current drive to keep state and religion separate in the schools should be seen in the light of these previous crusades. Appeal to the Constitution and the courts is useless because the secularizers have insured that the Constitution, contrary to all evidence, will be read exclusively in the light of individual rights.

What we need to do is turn the tables and call upon the secularizers to defend themselves. The first question we ought to ask is, “What, precisely, does the state expect the schools it finances to accomplish?” We can accept as legitimate, although even this is debatable, that the state has a right to expect every child to be literate and to know enough math and science to be able to function in the marketplace. We should reject out of hand any of the vague claims that invariably follow: children should learn about government, American history, “values,” etc. Turning their own cliches back on them, we should tell the secularizers, “In a democracy the people tell the state what rights it has and not the other way around. The state has no right to foster an attitude toward government, much less any set of values; likewise, the state has no right to foster the opinion that there is no ‘correct’ attitude toward government and no single ‘correct’ value system. Relativism is as subjective as idealism.”

These guidelines should be applied in all specific cases. Thus in the case of sex education we should ask the secularizers, “What, specifically, do you wish to accomplish in this course?” The first answer we will get-“You’d be surprised how many teenagers don’t know what causes pregnancy”-we can dismiss. Even if it is true (and if it is, things have certainly changed since I was in highschool), the problem can be solved for even the dumbest teenager in about 10 minutes in a biology class. “Why,” we will ask, “do students need a semester or even a year of sex education?” Next will come statistics about teenage pregnancy and venereal disease and the state’s need to protect itself. No need to question the statistics, which, like the Bible and the Constitution, can be used to prove anything. Better to ask why there are so many teenagers who don’t get pregnant. Answers, of course, will vary: some are Catholics or fundamentalist Protestants who out of deep religious conviction or outright fear abstain from sexual activity; others are the children of up-to-date parents who provide them with all the latest protection and occasional trips to the abortion clinic. What method will be taught in a sex education course? Why should the state prefer one method over another?

The idea that the school will present all attitudes 

toward sexual activity and allow the child to decide is laughable. In the first place, a state school has no business presenting the Roman Catholic position on any contemporary moral issue (an additional problem: do atheists want a Roman Catholic teaching their children about sex and vice versa?); in the second place, it is absurd to believe that any human being-let alone a teacher-can be perfectly neutral; in the third place, even if the teacher were neutral, the very notion that there is no absolute moral code governing sexual activity would undermine the fundamentalist teaching on the subject. To be perfectly fair, a teacher in a sex education course could not discuss love, birth control, abortion, disease or abstinence. What, then, could be discussed? How women get pregnant, which, as we have seen, can be covered in about ten minutes. And making the course voluntary, in light of the “stigma test,” should be out of the question.

A similar test could be applied to the teaching of history, literature, social problems, political science, art, etc. Even a science teacher, to keep things perfectly balanced, could only discuss how, never why, nature works. I have used sex education as an example only because it illustrates—far better than that typical central planner’s red herring, prayer in the schools—how any workable education system, if children are to be in school more than two or three hours a day, must have a moral center, a vision of reality that informs teaching in every area. Accordingly, a public school in a secular democratic state must exert its authority over every other institution, including—indeed, especially—the family, which is forced by law to send its children to school.

The state, then, cannot operate compulsory schools without forcing its moral vision on the captive children. The resulting conflict pits the state against the family (and often the child against his family and religion). The first casualty in such a conflict is education itself as the schools flounder, trying to impose a “value system” which will produce discipline and order. The result was made plain by one of the many recent studies of education which concluded that schools need “More ‘ceremonial activities’ such as assemblies and opening exercises, that emphasize values the schools wish to promote, including cooperation, effort and patriotism.” No, this is not taken from Pravda but from the Washington Post. Cooperation and patriotism are vague and inclusive enough to please any totalitarian bureaucracy; and nothing could be more typical of central planners than the notion that values, like math or computer science, can be emphasized.

The situation in the schools is bad and in the long run the current nationwide effort at reform, because it will lead to greater centralization, will make matters worse. The educational establishment is large, bloated, cumbersome and unresponsive to change and innovation. Like any overgrown bureaucracy, it can only offer more of the same, but through sheer size and inertia it can block real reform.
Another obstacle to reform, especially in the South, is the Protestant majority’s deepseated and contradictory philosophy of public education. Like a bloated bureaucracy, it clings to a status quo-public schools based on Protestant morality-that no longer exists; but, the victim of its own propaganda, it goes on insisting on a spurious separation of church and state. The result will be a completely secular and chaotic educational system w’hich only the wealthy and those who live in areas where there are parochial schools will be able to escape. But even parochial and expensive private schools may be doomed; we too easily forget that Oregon, as early as the 1920s, banned all private schools in the state, a law later overturned by the courts. Oregon’s action may have been merely crude and premature; there are more ways than one to skin a Christian.

It follows that the first step to real reform is action which will break the education establishment’s monopoly on the schools because as long as it has a monopoly it will not make any fundamental changes. And as long as it can hoodwink the public with its rhetoric about the separation of church and state, it will maintain its stranglehold. The only thing that will break the stranglehold is the voucher system. For those who are not familiar with it, it works as follows: the state determines how much money it will spend on education for each child in any given year (the state already does this); that money is given to the parents of the child in the form of a voucher, which can be used at any school the parents choose; the school turns the voucher over to the state and receives the money allocated to the child.

There is nothing new or untried about the voucher system; various forms of it have been used for a long time in western European countries and in this country the G.I. Bill, a voucher system for higher education, was very successful. But even the voucher system, devoid of any governing principle, can be subverted by the education establishment through the process known as accreditation, whereby departments and boards of education make schools conform to certain “standards.” These standards often have little or nothing to do with education; schools are required to have so much floor space and so many toilets; they are required to teach certain courses, to have “accredited” teachers, to offer music and art programs and hot lunches, to hold classes so many hours a day and so many days a year. Naturally these regulations could be adjusted to drive any “undesireable” schools out of business. Accordingly, the voucher system should be implemented through the following principle: The state has no interest in education beyond the assurance that an individual can operate in the marketplace if he wants to; thus federal and state education departments should establish minimum standards in reading, writing, math and science (that is. tests should be used to determine whether a student has attained the minimum standard). No state or private school can award a diploma to any student w ho does not pass the test of minimum achievement. Any other standards are outside the purview of departments of education; in other words, the sanitation department determines whether the school has enough toilets, the fire department determines whether it is safe, etc.

The voucher system, like any other system, would not be perfect, but unlike the present system, its strengths would far outweigh its weaknesses:

  1. It would end the turmoil over religion and values which currently disrupts the schools.
  2. It would break the education establishment’s monopoly. State schools, in order to survive, would have to compete on equal footing with private schools, a competition which would produce enormous improvement in the state schools.
  3. It would put an end to regulations which force good teachers to waste their time meeting “certification” requirements which do little more than provide jobs at universities.
  4. It would save the taxpayers enormous amounts of money. Departments of education, school boards, accreditation committees, etc., would be greatly reduced or abolished. Schools, in order to compete for students, would have to decide whether money is better spent on bureaucrats or teachers. And God only knows how many millions will be saved when bussing is abolished.
  5. It would increase parental involvement in education. One of the many evils of bussing is that it carries poor children out of their own neighborhoods, often into more affluent ones. Consequently their parents cannot often get to the school for conferences and P.T.A. meetings; and when they can they are often intimidated by the unfamiliar surroundings. Studies show that when parents pay all or part of their children’s school fees, they become more involved in what’s going on at the school; this is true even of poor parents who have their fees waived at parochial schools. The current system encourages the belief that schools are free and parents—especially those who are poor and uneducated-tend to think they have to accept what they are “given.”
  6. Finally, the voucher system, because it w’ould decentralize education, should be especially attractive to the South and other regions which have strong cultural traditions.
    precedent on its side, but those qualities must be weighed against the central planners’ lust for power and control. Thus, the most attractive feature of the system, freedom of choice, is to the educationist its most radical and dangerous feature.

As writers from Orwell on have pointed out, freedom is one of those God words (Weaver’s phrase) of modern society: everyone uses it to justify his own particular prejudice. Thus in a Marxist society freedom can be realized only through the dictatorship of the proletariat, who-being ignorant and the victim of the economic system-must be controlled by a small clique. The worker is totally free when he unquestioningly obeys the dictates of the party. In a similar fashion the welfare state makes abortion an expression of freedom; forcing a worker to join a union frees him; the minimum wage frees jobless black teenagers. In general, freedom is a word used by the ruling elite to justify its control of society.

Not surprisingly, then, educationists object to the voucher system, but the actual reason for their objection—that it breaks their financial monopoly and returns control of the child to the family—is concealed behind a cloud of rhetoric about the separation of church and state. According to the educationist, a child is free only when the state has the power to determine where he goes to school and what he learns at school.

The first small step toward the voucher system is tuition tax credits. The courts have upheld the Constitutionality of tax credits in one state; the federal administration as well as conservative congressmen and state legislators should push for them in all states. Once tax credits are widespread and the principle of state money going directly to families is firmly established, the principle can be used to push for the voucher system. But as I have said, none of this will come about until Christians and other religious groups abandon their devotion to the secularists’ reading of the first amendment. The issue is certainly one of the most crucial of our time for only under the voucher system can school develop the coherence and purpose that is necessary to learning,

Warren Leamon

Warren Leamon (1938-2017) held a Ph.D in English from University College in Dublin, Ireland. He taught English at the University of Georgia and was an author, poet, and literary critic.

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