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The Roots of Public Education And the New Aristocrats
William Fulmer, April 2, 1999 -- During the tumultuous creation of our nation some of our founding fathers favored universal public education for the nation's young. Their motivation for such a concept was to shake off the European model of aristocracy and to develop a classless, egalitarian society. We'd like to believe that all our founders supported that concept, but such was not the case. Not long after the Revolution a bill nearly passed the Senate which would have established Greek as our national language. Only wealthy and well-educated aristocrats were schooled in classic Greek and Latin, so only they would be privileged to read and understand legislation. Since no public education existed, the aristocrats would retain absolute power. Sneaky.
    During the first half of the nineteenth century social activists proposed that the government should be responsible for educating all children. Some even went so far as to proclaim that all children should be "wards of the state" so that they would be properly fed, clothed, and educated. At the time many children worked 12-14 hour days on farms, in sweat shops and in mines, and most received no schooling whatsoever.
    When the bill in Pennsylvania passed in 1834, creating free public education for the Commonwealth's young, it was met with strong opposition. Identified as the primary opponents were:
    The aristocrats, those who felt that education should be only for the 'better' people, the 'well-born' or wealthy. Many of these were willing to contribute to the support of pauper schools where the poor could receive a limited education, but this education was to be doled out to them as an alms; something given to inferiors by superiors, and not just the due of the State to every citizen. (Walsh & Walsh, 1930, p. 122.)
    Attempts to repeal the law were defeated by such notables as Thaddeus Stevens, and the aristocrats were turned away. Public education still had a long way to go, however.
    As the 20th Century began the average life expectancy was 49 years of age, only 6% of the population graduated from high school, and more students studied Latin than studied English. Students had a shorter school year then (144 days), and they were absent much more (31.4% absenteeism - largely due to more illnesses and for work, e.g. planting and harvesting). Only kids who were motivated (dropping out was much easier even 30 years ago) and whose families could afford it had an education beyond grade school. Do these sound like "the good old days?"
    By the end of the 20th century public education has demonstrated its worth, and our lives are much improved. Over 90% of Pennsylvanians graduate from high school. But now public education is under a frightening assault by a new generation of aristocrats. Government initiatives to "privatize" education, including charter schools and voucher plans, could send us spinning back to the beginning of the century, or worse.
    The elitist mentality that "private is better than public" is exemplified by the fact that private charter schools would not be held to the same "tougher" standards recently set for public schools. Twenty-five percent of such charter school teachers would need no certification at all, and those schools could reject any students they consider "unacceptable." Isn't it strange that the very same people who screamed for tougher standards for public schools are the strident advocates for vouchers and for private charter schools with little or no standards?
    Providing public funds to support vouchers for private schools is said to give a choice to parents. It does not. It actually gives the choice to the private schools (which can refuse admission) and it denies choice to all taxpayers who prefer not to have their tax dollars support private (often religious) education, or to create elitist, unregulated schools.
    Stripping funds from public schools and tightening government restrictions on them, while moving only "acceptable" students from them to private charter schools (via taxpayer-funded transportation), will insure the degradation and demise of public education. Then those proponents for continued privatization can say, "see how bad public education is? Let's cut it some more." Sneaky, sneaky.
    There are better answers. Research confirms that two things need to be done. Smaller classes and smaller schools dramatically improve students' performance (one without the other does not work so well). But the new aristocrats are not interested in supporting what works best for Commonwealth citizens and our children.
    Public education serves its original purpose - to move us toward an egalitarian society by giving all our children a fair chance to succeed. The planned destruction of public education angers and worries us, because the new aristocrats are clever. They make it sound as if they are doing us a favor - giving us a "choice." The choice is simple. Give the new aristocrats more power at the expense of our children, or say no to vouchers and private charter schools.

William Fulmer is president of the Association of Pennsylvania State College and University Faculties (APSCUF). APSCUF is located in Harrisburg, PA.

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