Public schooling in too much of America has run down to mediocrity and worse. It's almost inevitable, and worse in some places than others.
At a Greenwich, Conn. elementary school recently the principal was suspended for a little juggle-ology with the school student handbook. Seems that he told a parent that birthday cupcakes needed to be left at the office. See, he said a little later, it's right here in the rules. Only it turned out that the principal had doctored the handbook, to provide, as Pooh-Bah, Lord High Everything Else, once said, a little "corroborative detail intended to provide artistic verisimilitude to an otherwise bald and unconvincing narrative." It's good that the schools in Greenwich are so good that parents only need to worry about the cupcake rules. In the rest of America things are not so good. Twelve to fourteen percent of adults rate "below basic" in literacy, and only 13 percent are rated "proficient" in the National Assessment of Adult Literacy.
Now, it's in the nature of the beast that government programs gradually run down. They have a life cycle just like everything else. They start in a fury of indignation, a lust for change, and a millennial hope.
It was that over 200 years ago the Enlightenment philosophe Condorcet submitted a plan to the French Legislative Assembly that called for universal state education to educate the people out of their prejudice and superstition. Although a government program the system would, of course, be free of political control.
It was that over 160 years ago Horace Mann, the father of US public education, urged a rationalization and centralization of the disorganized schools in Massachusetts under a State Board of Education. Apart from anything else, he confidently predicted just before the crime wave of the 1840s, his program would cut the crime rate by 90 percent. Then he went off to Prussia to see its universal state education system for himself.
It was that over 80 years ago John Dewey, the father of progressive education, proposed a system to teach children problem solving and critical thinking skills rather than training and drilling in basic skills. Of course, there is nothing quite like entrusting a project of flexible, progressive education to a bureaucracy of state employees privileged with lifetime job tenure.
Today, 215 years after Condorcet, 160 years after Horace Mann, and 80 years after John Dewey the schools have run down. Today about half the students entering college are unprepared, according to the New York Times.
Yet 180 years ago when the economist J.S. Mill, father of John Stuart Mill, traveled around Britain making an anecdotal survey of education -- at a time when the government actively discouraged education for its revolutionary potential -- he found a rage for education:
"We have met with families in which for weeks together, not an article of sustenance but potatoes had been used; yet for every child the hard-earned sum was provided to send them to school."
You can see why those nineteenth century parents sacrificed so much for their children. It didn't take a rocket scientist back then to see that a basic education in literacy and numeracy was the best way to avoid sending a child "down the pit" or into the textile mill.
Of course, that was in the bad old days, before the age of universal government education. Yet even today, as James Tooley has written, there remain unmet needs in the education sector. How else could it be that unregulated private schools thrive in the slums of Hyderabad and outperform the government schools, and low-cost for-profit schools for the poor are growing in Lima, Peru? Here in the United States you can't listen to the radio for an hour without hearing an ad for franchised educational tutoring from Sylvan Learning Center or Mathnasium. It's pretty odd, all things considered, that parents elect to pay for such extra tutoring when the governments at all levels in 2008 are expected to spend $837.7 billion, according to usgovernmentspending.com. Using the US Census 2000 number of 80 million Americans between 5 and 24, that's about $10,500 per young American.
It's good to know that the rich can get what they want out of the public schools in Greenwich. We wouldn't want them to go without. But the reason for government education is not to regulate the handling of birthday cupcakes. The purpose is to lift up the poor. And that is exactly what the current system too often fails to do in a nation with 14 percent of adults testing "below basic" in literacy.
As our children return to school this fall, most of them will do just fine. But many poor and inner-city children will not. Yet we know how to fix the inner-city schools. We have known for decades.
And now in Sweden, of all places, school choice is transforming the education system.
Some day the American mothers are going to have the right that Swedish mothers enjoy. It is the right to wave farewell to the local government school and say: You just don't care about kids.