Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Public Education, Then and Now
By Ben Boychuk
Posted July 14, 2000

America's struggle for freedom officially began with the shot heard 'round the world. But even before the muskets fired and cannons roared in Lexington, it was the education and learning of the Founders that helped guide America to the blessings of liberty.

Today, Americans know that education and learning are in danger. What Noah Webster called the "object of the first consequence" for all governments, routinely ranks at the top of voter concerns in poll after poll.

What to do? The conventional wisdom in Washington is that the myriad problems facing America's public schools today — from poor test scores to stopped-up toilets — are best solved by the federal government. For more than 30 years, centralizers and spenders have promised improvements.

Meanwhile, scores stagnate, curricula slide, and worst of all, entire generations of children fall behind. In the great tradition of America's free press and free speech, investor Ted Forstmann wants a renewed debate about the importance of education and the best ways to secure a better future for every child.

Forstmann is set to spend $20 million of his own money on television commercials to get this message out. For some, the truth will hurt. His message: "America's government-run public-school monopoly is failing our children."

Forstmann has already spent millions, with WalMart heir John Walton, to help the kids who have suffered most under that monopoly. When their Children's Scholarship Fund offered 40,000 private scholarships earlier this year for "at risk" kids, 1.25 million families applied.

Despite Forstmann's efforts, the education establishment has singled him out for savage criticism. Education Secretary Richard Riley accuses Forstmann of trying to "systematically downgrade and demonize" the schools. "A person who has a public voice ought to be using that voice to improve public education," Riley told the Associated Press.

Riley and his cohorts have it backward. In fact, Forstmann is giving voice to a public swamped by lies from special interests, educators, and politicians who see the system as a job protection racket only incidentally interested in children. Riley wouldn't be attacking Forstmann if he didn't fear the truth of his message.

Forstmann's effort to inspire debate and meaningful reform mirrors the Founding Fathers — every one of whom saw education as the real promise and bulwark of a free nation.

The ideals of that generation flowed directly from their learning and reading. Each and every founder raised his "public voice" to advocate universal education. From Washington and Franklin to Adams and Jefferson, every one offered his ideas about the state of education and the best ways to build an informed citizenry — from the lowliest mechanic's son to the most exalted Harvard grad.

As Jefferson wrote of his Virginia education plan in a letter to his friend George Wythe, "The tax which will be paid for the purpose of education is not more than the thousandth part of what will be paid to kings, priests and nobles who will rise up among us if we leave the people in ignorance."

Jefferson was by no means alone. George Washington called for a national university in his First Inaugural Address. John Adams asked his son in Europe to collect books and ideas for republican schools. James Madison tracked the education efforts in Kentucky and praised innovations and challenging curricula there. They agreed with Noah Webster that, "Knowledge, joined with a keen sense of liberty and a watchful Jealousy, will guard our constitutions."

Even before there was a Constitution, the young republic passed the first national education law on July 13, 1787. The Northwest Ordinance was written to govern United States territory north of the Ohio River. It read, in part: "Religion, morality, and knowledge being necessary to good government and the happiness of mankind, schools and the means of education shall forever be encouraged."

Such language — so high in aspiration — welcomed debate, innovation, entrepreneurship and local efforts to educate the citizenry.

Contrast the Founders' view with more recent innovations, such as the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965. A relic of the Great Society, the ESEA was intended to improve the education of poor and disadvantaged kids. What it did, in fact, was extend the web of federal law and the red tape of centralized bureaucracy with almost no accountability. After 35 years and more than $125 billion of federal aid, the poor and disadvantaged are still lagging behind.

It's finally dawning on people that almost a century of progressive educational theories and nearly four decades of federal meddling in the public schools is enough. But the answer is not to separate education from the control of the people. Our national interest in free government depends on an educated citizenry.

When Forstmann's ads hit the airwaves, remember their real purpose: An ignorant people cannot be free. It is the duty of every citizen to be vigilant and make sure government serves the people — not the other way around.

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