Recently, a “manifesto” about public schools was published in an e-zine, causing a furor. Its premise is that you’re a bad person if you send your kids to private school. I’m not going to link to it. A compelling argument has been made that the purpose of the piece was to ignite hit-generating controversy. The more hits, the more the e-zine can charge advertisers. Besides, all you need to know about this piece is its opening graf:
You are a bad person if you send your children to private school. Not bad like murderer bad—but bad like ruining-one-of-our-nation’s-most-essential-institutions-in-order-to-get-what’s-best-for-your-kid bad. So, pretty bad.
It was written by a woman I shall dub “Vi” — short for Village Idiot. I’m sorry, Vi, but anybody who suggests that my children or my neighbor’s children (or the president’s children, for that matter) should have their futures sacrificed at a public institution you clasp to your bosom with patriotic ardor deserves harsh treatment.
Vi’s argument was so obnoxious and so offensive and so ignorant of history that it cries out for ridicule, anger, refutation and all the mockery we can throw at it (she tells readers, by the way, that she herself was educated in a poor public school, yet she turned out just fine. No comment is necessary).
Let me steal a page from Vi’s style book, though, to make a counter argument: If you don’t support school choice programs, you’re a Klan sympathizer, standing shoulder-to-ideological-shoulder with unsavory bigots and xenophobes, nativists of the worst sort. At least my argument is grounded in some history. Take, for example, this stirring quote, which Vi and her sympathizers would surely endorse:
We now face “the ultimate perpetuation or destruction of free institutions, based upon the perpetuation or destruction of the public schools.”
I’m sure Vi would be nodding her head vigorously to that lovely sentiment, expressed by none other than the “king kleagle” of the Pacific Knights of the Ku Klux Klan. He uttered those words back in 1922 as Oregonians were being asked to outlaw private schools outright. The KKK was among the most vocal proponents for this referendum, and although Vi isn’t making a case for such measures, she is trying to shame parents into slamming the doors on private schools. Poor Vi — she’s behind the times. Been there, done that, her historical comrade-in-arms, the king kleagle, might say. Didn’t work out so well.
You see, Vi, Oregonians passed that law, which was directed mostly at Catholic schools (those pesky papists — they’re all Bolsheviks, doncha know), but the U.S. Supreme Court struck it down, unanimously, a few years later in a very famous ruling with a famous passage:
The child is not the mere creature of the state; those who nurture him and direct his destiny have the right coupled with the high duty to recognize and prepare him for additional obligations.
Oregon wasn’t the first state to walk the path you like so much, Vi. Other states had not been successful in passing such laws, but it wasn’t for lack of trying. In fact, the entire public school history in America is entangled with an unsavory nativist movement that sought to force immigrant children into common schools in order to…well, not so much educate them as re-educate them, blanching out their threatening “Roman” views in order to replace them with a homogenous Protestant outlook–a “nonsectarian” one, in the sense that the religion taught was not tied to a particular denomination. Ironically, this led to the blossoming of the Catholic school system, which ultimately had nativists taking a different tack–outlawing private schooling entirely.
Oh, I know, Vi. Religion has been taken out of public schools entirely now. But that doesn’t change the fact that the primary reason we have this particular public system of schooling in place in America today –where children are tethered to the public school in their neighborhood unless parents can afford to pay for something else — is because of this distasteful history. Truancy laws, school district boundary laws–they all sprang from the root of that poisonous tree.
So, before you go touting this terrific public institution that means so much to you and to America, golly gee, strike up the band, go back to school yourself. Or specifically, go back to history books. Then you might break your connection with your old Klan pals of the past and start thinking of public education in a new way, divorced from its ugly origins. You might ask yourself what public schooling in America would look like had it not been connected to such a dismal history. You might, in fact, begin to think of public education as the public’s responsibility to educate all children where their needs are best met.
If you can’t bring yourself to this more expansive and wise approach, then drop the charade and get yourself a white cloak and hood. After all, you might as well look the part you aspire to play.
Libby Sternberg is a novelist.