American Public Education: An Institution In Crisis

Dec 4th, 2021 | By | Category: Culture & Wordview, Featured Issues

The mission of Issues in Perspective is to provide thoughtful, historical and biblically-centered perspectives on current ethical and cultural issues.

The Northwest Ordinance of 1785 and the subsequent Land Ordinance organized the territory the United States gained by the 1783 Treaty of Paris, which ended the Revolutionary War.   Among other things, these acts organized the territories into townships and set aside one section in each township for a public school.  In the early decades of the new republic called the United States, it was understood that public schools would be a cooperative effort between the parents, the church and the school itself.  Indeed, in these early decades well into the 19th century, schools were often held in the churches.  As the Industrial Revolution located factories in 19th century cities, many children did not go to a public school but worked in the new factories.  Therefore, the Sunday school was the only avenue for education open to many families.  Historian Timothy Larsen comments that “by the mid-19th century, Sunday school attendance was a near universal aspect of childhood.  Even parents who did not attend church themselves generally insisted that their children go to Sunday school.”  But as compulsory public education emerged, this ended the church’s leading role in education.  Spiritual and moral formation now shifted completely to the parents and the church.


Historically in the US, public education had a local emphasis.  The individual states often set certain standards, but the local public school was funded by local property taxes, governed by locally elected school boards and generally reflected the values and practices of the local community.  But in post-World War II America, this began to change.  For example, with Elementary and Secondary School Act of 1965, the creation of the Department of Education in 1980 as a Cabinet level agency, and the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001, the role of the federal government in public education became significant.  Today, the Federal government provides money, sets certain standards for achievement tests and is dominant in enforcing Title IX issues dealing with Civil Rights, and other issues relating to discrimination.  In short, public education is no longer simply a local issue of governance, finances or standardized testing.  Public education has become a controversial, polarizing and complex aspect of American civilization.

Public education in America in 2021 is in crisis—and has become a major political issue.  Witness the recent campaign for governor of Virginia.  Natalia Mehlman Petrzela, an associate professor of history at the New School, reports that Glenn Youngkin shared on his website before winning the Virginia governor’s race a list of 15 purported “lies” told by his opponent, Democrat Terry McAuliffe.  Eleven concerned schools, and Youngkin’s rebuttals mostly centered on a promise central to his campaign: He would make “parents matter” in the educational decisions that affect their children.  Polling and the election results have shown that this was an effective strategy for Youngkin.  In fact, a majority of voters with children under 18, and of those who believe parents should have “a lot” of say in curricular matters, went for Youngkin. Indeed, “Seismic events such as the Great Depression, a world war and the civil rights struggle — or, today, a pandemic and a major reckoning around structural inequality — do change the experience of education. The resulting unease primes people, especially parents . . . to seize upon curricular issues as a concrete way to exert control over larger, inchoate and often unsettling social and political shifts. School issues, then, are no mere cipher for ‘real’ concerns: They’re central to contemporary political culture, in Virginia and beyond.”


Modern curriculums today, for example, give special emphasis to equity and progressive pedagogies, which are manifested “in new customs such as sharing gender pronouns, participating in identity-based affinity groups and adopting teaching materials that unsparingly discuss the role of racism in American society.” Therefore, both Democrats and Republicans are taking notice of all this.  “Democrats do themselves no favors by ignoring concerns about a changed educational environment.”  As Bret Stephens correctly argues, “. . . it is dishonest to argue that it is anything less than ideologically radical, intensely racialized and deliberately polarizing.”  If the Democratic Party continues to be associated with—to be the home of—radical progressive thinking in education, it will lose elections.


Columnist Peggy Noonan notes that “Americans’ relationship with public schools changed during the pandemic.  For the first time ever, on Zoom, parents overheard what is being taught, how, and what’s not taught, and they didn’t like what they heard.  The schools had been affected by, maybe captured by, woke cultural assumptions that had filtered down from higher-ed institutions and the education establishment.  The parents were home in the pandemic and not distracted.  They didn’t want their children taught harmful nonsense, especially at the expense of the basics.”  What parents observed via Zoom and the live-streaming of classes is that public education is no longer about teaching skills and communicating information necessary for success in life (e.g., mathematics, grammar, history as a framework for understanding the past, etc.); rather, public education is about political bias, hostility toward religion and sexual and racial indoctrination.


Philip Hamburger of the Columbia Law School goes so far as to claim that “The public school system, by design, pressures parents to substitute government education speech for their own.  Public education is a benefit tied to an unconstitutional condition. Parents get subsidized education on the condition that they accept government educational speech in lieu of home or private schooling . . . They are being pushed into accepting government speech for their children in place of their own.  Government requires parents to educate their children and offers education free of charge.  For most parents, the economic pressure to accept this educational speech in place of their own is nearly irresistible . . . Subjecting children to official political, racial, sexual and antireligious speech can be equally coercive.  And if public-school messages are so coercive against children, it is especially worrisome that parents are being pressured to adopt public educational speech for their own.”  Hence, for many parents, public education has become a vehicle for indoctrination, not the preparation for life.


Deuteronomy 6:4-9 stipulates the vital importance of parents in educating children.  There is to be a formal structure where children are taught facts, ethical standards and doctrinal truth.  Parents are central in moral and spiritual formation.  They model these virtues, values and standards before their children.  In America, parents, the church and the school should be cooperative and supportive in accomplishing this goal of education.  But moral and spiritual formation has been replaced by indoctrination and the pursuit of personal autonomy.  It is difficult to be optimistic about the future of public education in the US.  Christian parents will need to take seriously their responsibility before God in educating their children.  Because the public school system is not working, homeschooling or private school education are viable options.  But each one has a significant financial and temporal cost and, therefore, some Christian parents might need to embrace a sacrificial approach to educating their children.  For many public schools are no longer a viable option.  A model that fosters cooperation and support between parents, the church and the school is necessary.

See Andy Olson, Christianity Today (November 2021), p. 7; Natalia Mehlman Petrzela, “School culture wars stirred up voters for a reason: Classrooms really did change” in the Washington Post (5 November 2021); Peggy Noonan in the Wall Street Journal (6-7 November 2021); Bret Stephens in the New York Times (4 November 2021); and Philip Hamburger in the Wall Street Journal (23-24 October 2021).

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