The Old Deluder

Originally posted Thursday, October 21, 2004:

I’m not quite a single-issue voter; but I have to admit that of all the issues, I care the most about public education. That puts me in a distinct minority during this election, when national security is the issue of the year.
And yet really, education is a national-security issue. Americans have an almost mystical belief in education. We know that education is the key to a brighter economy. For generations, education has been the key to upward mobility for immigrants and the poor. We claim to believe that education is a good in and of itself, and not just for its economic benefits. Surveys say that Americans trust school employees, especially teachers, more than almost any other profession. A quality public education system offers hope for national prosperity, reduced crime, increased opportunity for all, and yes, national security.

Free universal public education is one of America’s gifts to the world. Public education as we know it got its start in the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1647, which passed a law commonly known as the “Old Deluder Satan Act.” The Act gets its name from its famous first line: “It being one chief project of that old deluder, Satan, to keep men from the knowledge of the Scriptures, . . . It is therefore ordered that every township in this jurisdiction . . . shall forthwith appoint one within their town to teach all . . . children . . . to write and read . . . .”

Public education today is an embattled institution. Americans have a healthy skepticism about institutions, but for the past generation the very concept of public education has been questioned by a chorus of public school critics. Since the eighties, vouchers, charter schools, education service providers, tuition tax credits, and home-schooling have all been touted as alternatives to public schools. Its proponents call it “educational choice,” and I don’t know anybody who seriously argues against school choice; but when that choice takes money away from the public schools, it amounts to the privatization and defunding of public education.

Instead of making public schools as good as they can be, tax support for private educational alternatives drains resources needed by public schools. Some ask, if the alternatives are better, what’s the problem? One problem is that while privatization rewards unaccountable boutique schools with tax dollars, it postpones the serious business of real educational improvement for all. Another, perhaps more serious, is that privatization siphons public dollars to entities that have virtually no accountability to the taxpayers.

To be fair, this divide reflects a real cultural difference. Public school advocates view education as a societal responsibility; privatization proponents view education as a commodity. Most citizens and taxpayers are neither privatizers nor advocates: they sincerely try to make difficult choices for themselves and their families. How should they make up their minds? I believe they should consider the following four points.

1. Our nation’s future will be determined largely by the quality of the education received by the majority of our children. Outstanding education for a few won’t help society much if most children aren’t well-educated.

2. Your property values are determined largely by your community’s public schools. Having great private schools won’t attract buyers if your public schools are poor.

3. Not all improvements require money; some improvements do. Suggestions that better management, administrative efficiencies, reorganization, or employee sacrifices can solve school funding problems without taxpayer support are either misguided or dishonest.

4. Public schools are, first and foremost, the public’s schools. Yet most studies indicate that today, the percentage of families with children in school is at an all-time low. The title of one recent book asks the question, “Is there a public for the public schools?” As citizens, we need to remember that our public schools are ours whether or not we have children there. If it takes a village to raise a child, all of us–not just the parents, and certainly not just the parents of public school children–must be that village.

Further into the ludicrously misnamed “No Child Left Behind” law–long after the end of the term of this President–penalties are scheduled for schools that can’t meet arbitrary standards set by people who don’t know a thing about education. The Bush platform calls for those penalties to include private school choice.

The law was passed with promises of unprecedented increases in federal funding for public schools. The federal contribution to funding public education has increased, all right–from 7% to 8% of the total cost. But the burdens imposed by federal interference constitute far more than 8% of the cost of schools doing business. The impact far outstrips federal support.

NCLB is based on misguided principles, and it consists of unfunded mandates that lead toward privatization on the sly. That’s why I support John Kerry for President: at least he recognizes that NCLB needs to be fixed and funded, while the President and his minions are convinced that it’s just fine, thank you. It’s a pity the issue isn’t getting more attention from the candidates themselves, but I can’t help that. I’m giving it all the attention I can.