Americans everywhere are outraged about big government healthcare. At the same time we're virtually silent about another industry where government and unions reign: education. Why?
Thanks to auto industry bailouts and "Cash for Clunkers," Detroit has been in the news quite a bit lately. But here's a headline from Motown you probably haven't seen: According to The Heritage Foundation, only one in four students graduate from high school in Detroit. Moreover, nationwide, one-third of fourth graders score "below basic" on the National Assessment of Educational Progress reading test while half of low-income students flunk. Plus, 30 percent of 18- to 22-year-olds do not have a high school diploma.
Are these statistics from the United States of America or a third-world nation?
A report titled "A Nation at Risk," published in 1983 by the U.S. Department of Education's National Commission on Excellence in Education, sounded the warning bell:
"The educational foundations of our society are presently being eroded by a rising tide of mediocrity that threatens our very future as a Nation and a people. What was unimaginable a generation ago has begun to occur-others are matching and surpassing our educational attainments.
"If an unfriendly foreign power had attempted to impose on America the mediocre educational performance that exists today, we might well have viewed it as an act of war. As it stands, we have allowed this to happen to ourselves."
As "A Nation at Risk" points out, we have done this to ourselves. We have a long history---nearly 400 years---of yielding responsibility for educating children to government.
Here is a brief timeline:
1647 Fearing parents won't take responsibility for educating children, the Massachusetts Bay Colony passes the Old Deluder Satan Act, requiring towns of 50 families or more to hire a grammar schoolmaster.
1785 The Federal Land Ordinance provides for surveying acquired British lands into 6-mile square townships with 36 numbered sections. Section 16 is reserved for public education.
1790 The Pennsylvania State Constitution of 1790 orders the government to establish schools throughout the state in order that poor students are "taught gratis."
1826 The Free School Society (New York) changes its name to the Public School Society and wins support to have a property tax instituted to fund their schools. Catholic private schools appeal, requesting a share of the property tax funds because their families are subject to the tax. The New York State legislature reduces the Public School Society's influence, yet also, and significantly, forbids spending public funds on denominational schools. Other states follow New York's precedent, funding only "nonsectarian" schools and requiring private school families to pay for both public and private education. As a result, educational competition weakens and in some cases is eliminated altogether (ibid.).
1834 The Pennsylvania Free School law creates a school district and a school board for each civil district. Voters from each district choose whether or not to require public funding of their local school and draw from the state's "Common School Fund."
1835 Acting on the Pennsylvania Free School Law, Pennsylvanians establish publicly funded schools in 59 percent of school districts.
1837 Horace Mann, known as the 19th century architect of American public education, becomes Massachusetts' secretary of education and creates a statewide system of common schools in a quest to form a common identity among the diverse cultural communities present in America (Steven L. Jones, Religious Schooling in America, Praeger, 2008).
1840s Interest in Catholic education is growing with Catholic immigration. Catholics attempt to reform public schools by ridding them of Protestant overtones. Failing, they turn to opening Catholic private schools.
1849 Connecticut adopts a public school system similar to Mann's Massachusetts model.
1852 Massachusetts passes laws requiring free formal schooling.
1857 The National Teachers Association is founded as a unifying group for state-based professional teacher associations. The NTA becomes the National Education Association in 1870 and takes on an ever-increasing political role as well union activities in the 1960s. The NEA carries significant national political clout and helps fund Democrat presidential campaigns from Carter to Obama.
1864 District of Columbia joins Massachusetts by passing a compulsory education law.
1865 Following the Civil War, most Southern states are required to rewrite their constitutions, including, among other things, a provision for public schooling. Free public education becomes a prerequisite for re-admittance to the Union.
1867 Vermont passes a compulsory education law.
1867 The Federal Office of Education (not a cabinet level department) is established within the executive branch to help states establish effective school systems.
1870-1890 Two dozen states pass compulsory attendance laws. Enforcement of these laws were difficult but established the state's education prerogative in two important ways: 1) the state defines what it means to educate and be educated and 2) the state mandates public support for educational provisions.
1890 The Second Morrill Act expands the role of the federal Office of Education to administer the original land-grant colleges and universities.
1900 Students enrolled in public school total 15.5 million (92 percent) versus 1.35 million in private schools. Most private school students are Catholic and are served by 3,500 parochial schools. Protestants support public education to sidestep denominational differences, reinforce pan-Protestantism, promote national unity, and unite in opposition to Catholic private education.
1900 Public funds totaling $215 million (valued in 2001 dollars) are spent on public elementary and secondary schools.
1914 A bulletin of the U.S. Bureau of Education states, "The public schools exist primarily for the benefit of the State rather than for the benefit of the individual."
1917 The Smith-Hughes National Vocational Education Act provides entrée for the federal government into the realm of vocational education.
1922 The Oregon Compulsory Education Act is a response to growing Catholic education, where Oregonians believe "nothing less than the future of the United States hinged on whether or not the public would endorse public education by outlawing private schools" (ibid.).
1953 The Cabinet-level Department of Health, Education, and Welfare is created under President Eisenhower.
1957 The Soviet Union launches Sputnik 1 and Sputnik 2.
1958 The U.S. Congress passes the National Defense Education Act, declaring education to be of national interest, citing Act 1 Section 8 of the U.S. Constitution as justification.
1965 Authorized by the Economic Opportunity Act of 1964, Head Start is a program of the Office of Economic Opportunity that serves pre-school-age children with education and health services.
1965 The Elementary and Secondary Education Act is an extensive statute that funds primary and secondary education. The government reauthorizes the act every five years since its enactment. The current reauthorization is the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 signed by President George W. Bush.
1979 President Carter signs into law the Department of Education Organization Act, establishing the U.S. Department of Education.
2007 The federal government spends $54.4 billion on education.
Over a period of nearly four centuries, Americans have slowly, like the proverbial frog in boiling water, turned responsibility for educating children over to the government. Of course, government plays a big role in healthcare, as well, but it doesn't have the same expansive reach as it does in the educational system. Now in 2009, Democrats have misread the election of 2008 and are seeking to take a giant leap forward in healthcare reform. Clearly, in the words of William F. Buckley Jr., Americans are "standing athwart of history, yelling 'Stop!'"
We don't know how this upstart political drama will end. Perhaps 2009 will be just another year in the timeline of citizens giving up an increasing amount of freedom and responsibility. Or maybe a new brushfire of freedom will break out and spread from healthcare to education and beyond.
Strike the match.