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The Federal Misedukation of America's Children
By Vicki E. Alger
The Independent InstituteCopyright © 2016 Independent Institute
All rights reserved.
When the Constitution Was Respected
Federal Hands Off Education
THROUGHOUT THE COLONIAL era and the early Republic, a diversity of nongovernment schooling options existed, long before the rise of government-mandated schooling. In their efforts to encourage education during this period, presidents and members of Congress exercised a level of constitutional restraint that might seem surprising today. Even the most ardent supporters of benevolent federal involvement in education, including Presidents George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and James Madison, insisted that the Constitution made no provision for a federal role in education and that, absent a constitutional amendment, the federal government had no authority whatsoever in this arena. That sentiment began shifting as immigration increased.
Government schooling proponents insisted that immigrant parents with foreign customs and faiths could not be entrusted with the education of their children. Only a government schooling system could educate their children with a view to preserving the public order. Such arguments were largely informed by the ideas of Horace Mann, who helped lay the foundation for free, homogenized, and institutionalized schooling managed by experts.
This chapter examines early American views of federal involvement in education and the form schooling took prior to the mid1800s. It concludes that government-run schools failed to establish the basic order proponents promised; however, proponents did manage to establish the notion of a system of institutionalized schooling supported by government, and this notion would help pave the way for the first national education department.
Early Views on Federal Involvement in Education
Whether the federal government should have a role in furthering education had been debated since the Constitutional Convention of 1787. During those meetings, Charles Pinckney of South Carolina and James Madison proposed four distinct plans for granting Congress authority to establish a university. On September 14, days before the Constitution was ratified, such authority was denied by a majority vote of six opposed. In fact, the only recorded words of objection were those of Gouverneur Morris of Pennsylvania, who stated such authority "is not necessary."
After the Constitution was ratified, proposals for establishing a national university and allowing federal funding for educational institutions were routinely debated by Congress but ultimately defeated in the absence of clear constitutional authority. Plans for a national university supported in whole or in part with public funds had also been proposed by Presidents Washington, Jefferson, and Madison; however, none of their plans passed constitutional muster. Congressional authority concerning education was confined to Article I, Section 8, Clause 8 of the US Constitution, the power to "promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts, by securing for limited Times to Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries."
In his second inaugural address on March 4, 1805, President Jefferson reported that federal costs were being contained, and progress was being made toward retiring the national debt. He looked forward to the time when a federal surplus could be divided among the states to "be applied in time of peace" (emphasis original) to "great objects" such as education, provided there was "a corresponding amendment of the Constitution." In other words, supporting education remained an ongoing consideration at the national level; however, the primary role of the federal government was viewed as ensuring funds to support the military, meeting its foreign obligations, and, insofar as possible, avoiding internal taxation of citizens.
The importance of education in a free society is evident in President Madison's first inaugural address delivered on March 4, 1809 — again with the proviso that it should be promoted within constitutional bounds. Only after affirming his support of the Constitution and his respect for the rights of the states and the people did President Madison include among his remaining guiding principles a desire "to promote by authorized means improvements friendly to agriculture, to manufactures, and to external as well as internal commerce; [and] to favor in like manner the advancement of science and the diffusion of information as the best aliment to true liberty."
Thus, President Madison thought education relating to the trades and the liberal arts should be promoted in a free republic but only "by authorized means," namely, constitutional ones. In his second annual message to Congress on December 5, 1810, President Madison again urged consideration of a national university "instituted by the National Legislature" and paid for "out of the vacant grounds which have accrued to the nation within those limits." President Madison envisioned his proposed national university "superadding to the means of education provided by the several States" and asserted that "though local in its legal character, [it] would be universal in its beneficial effects." According to President Madison:
By enlightening the opinions, by expanding the patriotism, and by assimilating the principles, the sentiments, and the manners of those who might resort to this temple of science, to be redistributed in due time through every part of the community, sources of jealousy and prejudice would be diminished, the features of national character would be multiplied, and greater extent given to social harmony. But, above all, a well-constituted seminary in the center of the nation is recommended by the consideration that the additional instruction emanating from it would contribute not less to strengthen the foundations than to adorn the structure of our free and happy system of government.
On February 18, 1811, Representative Samuel L. Mitchill of New York delivered a committee report to the House on President Madison's proposal for a national university. It aptly summarizes the sentiments of the early Republic up to that time concerning the importance of education and the proper role of the federal government:
To a free people it would seem that a seminary ... would be one of their best guards of their privileges, and a leading object of their care. Under this conviction, the patriotic spirit of Washington led him more than once to recommend ... an attention to such undertaking ... Two other Presidents have subsequently presented the subject to the Legislature as worthy of especial consideration. Authorities so respectable, in favor of a project so desirable, carry with them great weight. A central school at the seat of the General Government, darting the rays of intellectual light, or rolling the flood of useful information throughout the land, could not fail to make a strong impression. A noble and enlarged institution may be conceived to impart its pupils the most excellent instruction, and, by properly qualifying persons to be teachers and professors, to introduce a uniform system of education among the citizens. On weighing these and other advantages, it was necessary to consider whether Congress possessed the power to found and endow a national university. It is argued, from the total silence of the Constitution, that such a power has not been granted to Congress. ... The Constitution, therefore, does not warrant the creation of such a corporation by any express provision.
Congressman Mitchill goes on to note that a university located within the District of Columbia and fully funded through private means would not be unconstitutional; however, one supported even in part by public lands was not appropriate. In fact, the committee report proceeds from a finance principle that today seems foreign. Mitchill continues:
The endowment of a university is not ranked among the objects for which drafts ought to be made upon the Treasury. The money for the nation seems to be reserved for other uses. The incorporation of a university, without funds, appears a fruitless and inefficient exercise of the legislative power ... The matter then stands thus: The erection of a university ... is not among the powers confided by the Constitution to Congress.
With that, President Madison's proposal is not taken up by the House of Representatives. Madison proposed a national university again in his seventh annual message to Congress on December 5, 1815, and was again rejected. It is significant to note that President Madison never urged Congress to act without constitutional authority. Yet President Madison persisted the following year in his eighth annual message to Congress on December 3, 1816, stating, "The importance which I have attached to the establishment of a university within this District on a scale and for objects worthy of the American nation induces me to renew my recommendation of it to the favorable consideration of Congress."
About a week later, Rep. Richard Henry Wilde of Georgia spoke for the House committee responsible for considering President Madison's proposal. He noted that in this session for the first time a bill would be introduced favoring the establishment of a national university, in part because peaceful conditions and a budget surplus made it an opportune time. He explained:
If American invention, unassisted as it has been, already excites the astonishment of Europe, what may not be expected from it when aided and encouraged? And why should not aid and encouragement be endowed by institutions like the present, founded and endowed by the munificence of the State? ... Under a conviction, therefore, that the means are ample, the ends are desirable, the object fairly within the legislative powers of Congress, and the time a favorable one, your committee recommend[s] the establishment of a National University, and have directed their chairman to submit a bill and estimates for that purpose.
Conditions shifted dramatically over the next few months, and in March 1817, Congressman Wilde appeared before the House recommending that his committee's consideration of a bill to establish a national university be postponed indefinitely. He predicted that one day their successors would benefit "from meditating among the tombs of National Education and Internal Improvement. ... They would learn to distinguish those things which were intended for Congress, from those, if any, intended only for the people."
Schooling before the US Department of Education
While Congress was debating what — if any — constitutional role it had to play in advancing education, a variety of schools were already well established in the states. Compulsory education laws were few and far between during the American colonial period, yet a variety of schools flourished. There were common schools, supported primarily by private donations and some local taxes; schools run by churches; schools that prepared students for college; charity schools for the poor; and private tutors.
Massachusetts is said to have paved the way for government-run schooling in the United States with its compulsory education laws passed in the seventeenth century. Indeed, the first compulsory education law in the English-speaking world was the 1642 literacy law enacted by the Massachusetts Bay Colony. Revised and expanded in 1648, it required every town's selectmen to "have a vigilant eye over their neighbors" because, it argued, too many parents are negligent in their duty to educate their children, and education is a singular "benefit to any commonwealth." In 1647, Massachusetts enacted another compulsory education law, called the Old Deluder Satan Act.
As the colony developed socially and economically, the government did not enforce the law, yet the number and kind of schools proliferated in tandem with the arrival of more immigrants. These schools included local schools teaching practical trades as well as private schools teaching religion and academics. In fact, by 1720, Boston had more private schools than taxpayer-funded schools. Private schools were so prevalent that by the end of the American Revolution, most Massachusetts towns had no taxpayer-funded schools. Such was the case throughout colonial New England. Even in Rhode Island, the most reticent of the New England colonies to adopt laws for the establishment of schools, a variety of common and private schools existed, including schools specifically for women.
In the colonies outside of New England, various land grants and tax laws were passed for the establishment of common schools, but private religious schools were the norm. The Society for the Propagation of the Gospel would commonly send missionaries and ministers to teach the young throughout the colonies, and Catholic missionary schools for Indians and general parochial schools were established in Maryland as early as 1677. In fact, many of the nation's best schools were established during this early colonial period, including the Moravian schools in Bethlehem and Nazareth, Pennsylvania, and the William Penn Charter School in Philadelphia, which was open to girls as well as boys and was also free for those who were unable to pay tuition.
The free, unregulated system of education that prevailed throughout the colonies was conducive to a spirit of independence and contributed to the high literacy rates that were crucial for the spread of revolutionary ideas. In fact, as education author Samuel L. Blumenfeld noted, "Out of such educational freedom and diversity came enough consensus and agreement to make possible not only the Declaration of Independence, but also the pursuit of a long difficult war against Great Britain, and the establishment of a national government based on an ingenious Constitution."
Thus, in a continued spirit of educational freedom, the US Constitution made no mention of education and, by its silence on the issue, reserved such power for the people of each state. As former colonies began drafting their state constitutions during the revolutionary period, tax-supported government schools flourished alongside private schools. Parents of all backgrounds — economic, social, and religious — could find a school that was right for their children, and schools, in turn, had to serve students or lose them to competing schools nearby.
Up until the early 1800s education advocates largely emphasized the importance of universal access to primary and secondary education and were less focused on controlling, much less preventing, voluntary educational efforts. Government funding for education was not considered essential to universal access. In 1776 Adam Smith explained in The Wealth of Nations that educational instruction benefits society as a whole and that general benefit could justify public funding for it. Smith noted, however, that an even more compelling case could be made that education and instruction should be privately financed, either by the immediate beneficiaries themselves or by private benefactors.
Not long afterward, Thomas Paine appears to predict that compulsory schooling proponents would justify public subsidies for government schools by appealing to the plight of poor children. In 1791 in the section of his seminal work The Rights of Man entitled the "Ways and Means of improving the Conditions of Europe, etc.," Paine suggests that instead of subsidizing a schooling system, public funds should instead be provided to poor parents directly in the form of vouchers so they could send their children to schools of their choice. Paine also believed the poor should not be compelled to attend schools far away from their homes: "Education, to be useful to the poor, should be on the spot; and the best method, I believe, to accomplish this, is to enable the parents to pay the expense themselves."
Nearly seventy years later in 1859, John Stuart Mill elaborated on this idea in his seminal work On Liberty. Like Paine, Mill believed parents, not government, should be allowed to choose their children's schools — even if they are poor. As Mill explains, just because the government mandates and subsidizes universal education, it does not follow that government is the proper provider of education:
If the government would make up its mind to require for every child a good education, it might save itself the trouble of providing one. It might leave to parents to obtain the education where and how they pleased, and content itself with helping to pay the school fees of the poorer classes of children, and defraying the entire school expenses of those who have no-one else to pay for them.
Thus, for Mill, the government should be the education funder, not its provider, leaving this role to many competing educational providers.
Excerpted from Failure by Vicki E. Alger. Copyright © 2016 Independent Institute. Excerpted by permission of The Independent Institute.
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Table of Contents
United States Department of Education Chronology,
PART I The History of the US Department of Education,
1 When the Constitution Was Respected: Federal Hands Off Education,
2 Early Steps Toward a Federal Role in Education,
3 Twentieth-Century Proponents Make the Case for Federal Involvement in Education,
4 With the New Department, a Larger and Larger Federal Role in Education,
5 Federal Education Initiatives by Executive Order,
PART II Results to Date,
6 Has the US Department of Education Kept Its Promises?,
7 American Students on the International Stage: A Mediocre Performance,
8 How the Top Performers Do It: Alternative Models from Across the Globe,
PART III Returning the Federal Government to Its Constitutional Role in Education,
9 Ending, Not Mending, Federal Involvement in Education,
10 Dismantling the US Department of Education Brick by Brick,
11 A Blueprint for the Next Thirty Years: Parental Choice,
12 A Blueprint for the Next Thirty Years: Privatizing the Federal Role,
About the Author,