Public Schools are the result of a noble experiment which has run its course. They have been done in by the cancerous sores of the twentieth century: centralization, secularization, social engineering, and stupidity, to name a few. It seems unlikely that the public education system will survive, but great amounts of money are certain to be expended in an attempt to preserve it.

Public education in the United States began in the north. Private schools were more common in the early south. The system started when groups of parents banded together to provide education for their children. A group of parents would hire a teacher and provide a schoolhouse. Children of varying ages, educational experience, and intellectual capacity would be gathered into one room and given an adequate, if rudimentary, education. Older and brighter students helped those of more tender years or duller wit. Parents paid the teacher and controlled what was taught. All of the parents in the group probably spent their Sundays in the same church and their children’s education reflected their religious beliefs and a shared moral code.

When the town started paying the teacher and providing the schoolhouse there was no noticeable change in the system. The same people were involved and the same curriculum continued. Trouble poked its nose under the edge of the tent when someone discovered the principle of economy of scale. For less than the cost of maintaining eight one room schools, eight groups could combine their resources and provide one school with eight teachers and one classroom dedicated to each grade. The children had to go a little farther to get to school, but the improved educational opportunities made that a small price. It was not too long, however, before it was noticed that when children from different villages attended one school, there was much more likelihood that not all of those children would be in the same church on Sunday. Care had to be taken not to offend the religious beliefs of any of the students, but doctrinal differences were not great and there was plenty of common ground for teaching moral values. When the schools got big enough to pull in Jewish students, the problem got bigger but common ground for moral education was still available. Then came the atheists. Sensitivity to their rights required banishing moral issues to Sunday school and completely secularizing public education.

While the schools were growing bigger, the role of parents in the education of their children was diminishing at roughly the same rate. The twentieth century’s insistence on division of labor encouraged parents to leave the education of their children to the “experts” who obviously knew more about education than parents, many of whom didn’t even have a college degree. No longer could the parents fire the teacher if he was teaching something they found offensive. The teachers were in charge. Parent-teacher organizations became teachers aid associations. When you hear someone exhorting parents to join the PTA he is not encouraging parents to question the wisdom of the experts, he is demanding that they band together to support whatever decisions have been made by the school authorities and volunteer some of their time in support of whatever the latest program is.

Large school systems require some sort of uniformity and to insure that uniformity, legions of teachers – not always the best and the brightest - left the classroom for administrative posts. Teachers were now answerable not to parents but to administrators who were often anxious to leave their marks on education by changing the system to conform to whatever was the latest hot theory of how children learn. We had now created a system in which the decision makers were not responsible for results. If the latest hot theory made things worse, it must be because the classroom teachers were not trying hard enough. With the advent of federal aid to education, some of the decision makers were moved even farther from the classroom, all the way to Washington, D.C. At the same time morality ceased to be a proper subject for education, these detached administrators were marking their territory with ever more esoteric and less effective teaching systems.

Into this mix was poured the idea that teachers ought not bruise the egos of their charges, and the social promotion policy was born. When the children’s desire to act like adults was indulged, a very interesting recipe for disaster was complete. There is no hope for the public schools. Some schools appear to be well run and effective, but it is not the fault of the school system. If parents send the schools well behaved children eager to learn, they will learn. If parents send lazy and apathetic children to the same school, they will not learn. If the aim is to educate only those who are eager to learn, the system is working. As for the rest, providing baby sitting services for teenagers is not only expensive, it is harmful to their development.

Perhaps the public school system just needs to be scrapped. Perhaps it is long past the point at which repair is a viable option. Perhaps there are just too many things wrong, and too many voices pulling in different directions to allow any meaningful reform. Perhaps the only solution is just to get rid of it and start over. If the public schools can be saved, they will not be saved by voluntary internal reform.

If the schools can be saved, they will be saved by school officials faced with competition which threatens to make them obsolete and unemployed. If parents have the option of private schools the drain of students from the public school system will frighten public school officials into adopting reforms which they hope will save their jobs. In 1878 school vouchers were available for high school students in Mississippi. Parents could send their children to any school they wanted and be reimbursed by their county governments. Most of the schools in those days were sponsored by churches. In the nineteenth century Mississippians saw nothing unconstitutional in providing these vouchers.

It is time to revive the use of school vouchers. They will either save or replace public schools. Which it is will depend upon the response of the public school officials.