Education Secretary Betsy DeVos has been a loyal proponent of school choice. In her home state of Michigan, DeVos advocated both public school choice and vouchers to empower parents to send their children to private and religious schools. As secretary, she argues that “parents no longer believe that a one-size-fits-all model of learning meets the needs of every child.” They “know other options exist, whether magnet, virtual, charter, home, faith-based or any other combination.”
Now President Trump is proposing devoting unprecedented amounts of federal money to expand school choice nationally. Both Trump and DeVos argue that families, not the public, should choose their schools. As DeVos recently proclaimed, “School choice is about recognizing parents’ inherent right to choose what is best for their children. That’s the manifestation of expanding human liberty in America.”
But this conception of public education ignores our collective interests as a society. America’s public schools developed because after the Revolution, Americans realized that leaving education to parental whims and pocketbooks created vast inequalities and could not ensure an educated citizenry. A return to this type of system threatens to exacerbate educational inequality, which already plagues modern America and weakens our democracy. The Founding Fathers saw freedom as the cornerstone of the nation and public schools as essential vehicles to secure it. Guided by their vision, we should work to fix America’s public schools, not abandon them.
During the Colonial era and into the early American republic, most Americans shared DeVos’s notion that education was a family responsibility. Parents who could afford it taught their children at home, hired itinerant men or women who “kept” school for a fee, or sent older children to charter schools called academies. Most Americans had little formal schooling.
The Revolution transformed how some Americans thought about education. These Americans agreed with Thomas Jefferson that the future of the republic depended on an educated citizenry. They also believed that the opportunities offered by schooling should be available to rich and poor alike. Many state constitutions included clauses like Georgia’s in 1777: “Schools shall be erected in each county, and supported at the general expense of the State.” But how to execute this directive? The best way, American leaders ultimately concluded, was to encourage local public schools and to limit the growth of academies.
As early as the 1780s, Massachusetts Gov. Samuel Adams asserted that academies increased inequality because well-off families chose them over local district schools. Citizens, Adams argued, “will never willingly and cheerfully support two systems of schools.” Others shared his concern. New York Gov. George Clinton argued in 1795 that academies served “the opulent” and that all children deserved access to “common schools throughout the state.”
Adams and Clinton identified a fundamental problem. If too many parents opted out, education would remain a private good, parceled out on the basis of economic means. Reformers, by contrast, hoped to convince Americans that education was a public good and that everyone benefited from high-quality public schools. It would not happen naturally, as Pennsylvania schools superintendent Francis Shunk observed in 1838: “It may not be easy to convince a man who has educated his own children in the way his father educated him, or who has abundant means to educate them, or who has no children to educate, that in opposition to the custom of the country and his fixed opinions founded on that custom, he has a deep and abiding concern in the education of all the children around him, and should cheerfully submit to taxation for the purpose of accomplishing this great object.”
Horace Mann, secretary to the Massachusetts Board of Education in the 1830s, believed the only solution was to make every family a stakeholder in the public schools. Wealthier families would invest in other people’s children only if their own children attended the same schools and benefited from them. If some families decided to “turn away from the Common Schools” and send their children to a “private school or the academy,” poorer children would end up with a second-class education. To ensure that students and their parents came together as a public, “there should be a free school, sufficiently safe, and sufficiently good, for all the children” in every district. The constituency for the public schools would be forged through the schools themselves as more and more Americans sent their children to them and became devoted to their success.
And it worked. As more and more families enrolled in the public schools, Americans developed a commitment to sustaining them. By the Civil War, most Northern states offered tuition-free, tax-supported common schools.
The South, however, lagged behind. There, chartered academies remained more popular. Education continued to be treated as a familial, not public, responsibility. This made it harder to persuade citizens to pay for public schools. An 1822 report commissioned by the Kentucky legislature concluded that public schools could succeed only if most children attended them. If wealthy families did not enroll, public education would be treated as welfare.
The Kentucky report had a point. Public programs in which all Americans benefit — such as Social Security and Medicare — are more popular than programs that target specific populations. Only by coming together did Americans come to think of education as a shared responsibility.
That commitment was always tempered and limited. White flight and residential segregation are just two ways that some American families exercised choice in ways that sustained inequality. But Mann’s insights remain true. Even in a system segregated by race and class, as long as most families sent their children to a local public school, Americans thought of schooling as a shared responsibility and upheld the Founders’ vision of an educated citizenry. If, however, we embrace DeVos’s radical vision and policies, we risk losing this already fragile commitment.
Americans invested in educating one another’s children when most families had a stake in their local schools. The schools themselves fostered this commitment: The public good was not sustained by abstract principles alone but through actual institutions and investments. Certainly, parents have an obligation to look out for their children’s interests, as DeVos observes. Yet, unlike DeVos, Mann did not see this obligation as conflicting with a devotion to public schools. Every family benefited from successful public schools, not just society. But Mann recognized that widely attended public schools would also encourage Americans to fulfill their democratic obligations to one another. Making education a public good was one of the hard-fought victories of reformers after the Revolution, one that safeguarded the spirit of the Revolution and that now risks being reversed.