Development of Public Education

During the first colonial settlements, American education was decentralized and mostly private-though there was a movement for compulsory education motivated, ironically, by the colonists' belief in the importance of Christian study. But as we'll see, around the middle of the nineteenth century, starting in New England, the nation began to establish publicly run and funded schools.

Matthew Brouillette, "The Case for Choice in Schooling: Restoring Parental Control of Education," The Mackinac Center for Public Policy, 1. Brouillette has two postgraduate degrees in education and history and served as the Director of Education Policy for the Mackinac Center for Public Policy between 1998 and 2002.

Today our government-controlled education system bears no resemblance to the decentralized scheme preceding it. While many people regard public schools as marking a great progressive leap forward for America, the record is much more dismal. Albert Shanker, a former president of the American Federation of Teachers, reflected on this change for the worse: "It's time to admit that public education operates a planned economy, a bureaucratic system in which everybody's role is spelled out in advance and there are few incentives for innovation and productivity. It's no surprise that our school system doesn't improve: It more resembles the communist economy than our own market economy."

In early colonial America, parents largely controlled their children's education, as there were no regulatory boards and no system for teacher certification. Colonial America had common schools that were partially financed through local taxes, but the majority of funding was private. During that time, religious organizations and philanthropists helped to establish free schools for the destitute. The first common schools in America were Christian. This was a completely natural development, because many early settlers came to America as religious congregations seeking to escape religious persecution and to establish their own churches, local governments, and schools. In fact, these early schools were established for the very purpose of Christian religious instruction. There is a simple reason for this. The settlers viewed illiteracy as a great evil because it denied people access to the Bible. Parents wanted to teach their children to read so they could read the Bible, which provided information essential to their daily lives and eternal salvation.

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