Many Americans believe that "public education" is a cornerstone of our democratic form of government. But the top down, government control of education that has taken over much of the world is a historical anomaly which is on its way out.
It is true that Thomas Jefferson regarded an educated populace as critical to our new nation. In a 1786 letter to George Washington, he wrote:
It is an axiom in my mind that our liberty can never be safe but in the hands of the people themselves, and that too of the people with a certain degree of instruction. This it is the business of the state to effect, and on a general plan.
This sort of sentiment is the origin of the belief that public education is a foundation for our democracy.
But what people don't realize is that Jefferson's original vision was for local schools, supported and controlled by parents. Philosopher George Smith summarizes Jefferson's original vision here,
Jefferson’s plan, as indicated in the passage quoted above from Notes on the State of Virginia, called for a highly decentralized system in which small wards (“districts of five or six miles square”) would establish and control their own schools. Jefferson feared centralized authority, so he did not want even a state government to “take this business [of elementary education] into its own hands.” In his “Plan for Elementary Schools” (1817), Jefferson warned that if a governor and state officials were to control the district schools, “they would be badly managed, depraved by abuses,” and would soon exhaust the available funds.
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The key to local school districts, according to Jefferson, is that they give parents direct and ultimate control over how their children are educated. To suppose that schools will he better managed by “any authority of the government, than by the parents within each ward…is a belief against all experience.” A government can no more manage schools than it can manage “our farms, our mills, and merchants’ stores.” Elementary education should be the concern of local communities under the supervision of parents; it should not be controlled by the federal or state governments.
In essence, such a system of locally controlled schools was very different from the later system imported from the Prussians by Horace Mann.
After visiting Prussia in the early 19th century, Horace Mann advocated for a state controlled education system. First implemented in Massachusetts in response to bigotry against the Irish, Mann's system gave the state a much higher degree of control, including control over teacher training at so-called "Normal Schools," than anything that Jefferson had advocated.
Moreover, initially schooling was just a few months a year for a few years of elementary school in order to provide the basics of reading, writing, and arithmetic. It was only gradually over the late 19th century and across the 20th century that mission creep led to longer school days, longer academic years, and more years of schooling. As late as 1900 only about 5% of Americans attended high school and only in the 1930s did a majority of Americans begin to attend high school. Many of the greatest figures of American history, including Ben Franklin, Andrew Carnegie, and Thomas Edison, only attended school for a few years.
In the mid-20th century, a movement towards school consolidation reduced the number of school districts from more than 200,000 in the 1920s to fewer than 20,000 in the 1970s. Thus the original Jeffersonian vision of local control was more deeply eroded as enormous district bureaucracies replaced parent led and controlled schools.
Finally, the federal role in education, which was almost non-existent in 1960, gradually grew in the 60s, 70s, 80s, 90s, and 00s until we got to "No Child Left Behind" (NCLB), in which the federal government imposed a nation-wide testing regimen that resulted in significant less autonomy for parents and teachers alike. Activist teachers unions, starting in the 1960s, simultaneously began constraining school autonomy through collective bargaining agreements that locked in very specific hours and roles for teachers - a de facto additional layer of bureaucratic constraint.
Thus anytime someone claims that the more recent movement towards parental choice is inconsistent with our nation's commitment to "public education," remind them that our massive bureaucratic government system bears no relationship whatsoever to Jefferson's original highly localized vision. There is no reason for any of us to regard anything about today's system of government schooling as anything but an overgrown cancer.