Thomas Jefferson and School Choice

Thomas Jefferson, like many of the Founders, envisioned a future America with a universal system of education. Universal education -- of a sort -- has been achieved in the 20th century, mostly through a wide network of public primary schools, but would Jefferson have approved of today's educational model or its results?

The key to an American educational revival will be a return to the principles that guided visionary founders like Thomas Jefferson. Only through school choice -- charter schools, vouchers and online classes -- can the founders' vision for educated republican citizens be restored over the retrograde wishes of those benefited by the entrenched education system. Universal public education might have been achieved for K-12 students, but dismal results in both basic academics and civic literacy show that the system must be retooled to provide students with the skills and attributes they will need to succeed in a competitive global economy and make wise decisions about laws and policies.

Jefferson wished to open educational opportunities to the common man, something that America is failing to do, even with the huge amount of money we've poured into failing, and often corrupt, low-income school districts. In our republican system, it is crucial that we educate all citizens, since they choose our policies and leaders. Instead, we are consigning disadvantaged American children to their local schools, where they do not receive an education capable of launching them into the American meritocracy.

Dumas Malone, one of the greatest Jefferson historians, said of Jefferson's education policies in the book Jefferson: The Virginian, "His emphasis was on public purposes. The most important of these was to guard the freedom and happiness of individual members of society."

Jefferson saw the opening up of education to citizens both rich and poor as a way to safeguard the liberty of all citizens. His goal was not to do this by dragging down the wealthy or privileged, but to open up opportunities for all talented, dedicated individuals to education that was accessible.

At the time, Jefferson's ideas were revolutionary, but they soon became the way Americans looked at education.

In an age where most public schools are outright failures, producing illiterate and politically clueless citizens outside of a few districts in what Charles Murray called "superzips," the wealthiest areas in America, this country needs a new revolution in education based on Jefferson's timeless principles.

James Truslow Adams, who edited the book Jeffersonian Principles and Hamiltonian Principles wrote about how Jefferson would have viewed America's system of education:

Public education had been carried to a height almost undreamed of by him, yet he would realize that its results have been disappointing. He would observe that schools and colleges may make people literate but cannot make them learned or wise, and that the mass of the people whom he would have educated with such care for the purpose of making them citizens preferred reams of the headline-tabloid press and sensational movies to any five minutes of genuine consecutive thought.

Adams wrote this in 1932. Is there any doubt, as bad as America's system of education may have been in 1932, that it is a whole lot worse now? Now, in contrast to globally-high literacy rates at the time of the founding, many American adults can't even read, as in the case of Detroit, where, according to a study, nearly half the population is illiterate.

It is no wonder that America is now struggling under the weight of countless government schemes and a lack of political leadership. We, as a nation, are creating whole generations of "low-information voters" who are simply incapable of making wise policy choices because they lack a basic understanding of civics.

The failure of American education hasn't been for lack of school funding or lack of desire from parents to educate and give their children the skills they need to succeed in life. America is letting down its young students because of a lack of adherence to the founder's views of federalism and the failure to inculcate a sound base of civic knowledge in future citizens.

Jefferson explained the need for a broad, general education in civics before "specializing" in any particular field to his friend W.C. Rives: "Nothing can be sounder than your view of the importance of laying a broad foundation in other branches of knowledge whereon to raise to raise the superstructure of any particular science..."

This broad foundation should occur at the K-12 level in preparation for the more specialized education that occurs at colleges and universities. However, given that one of the most commonly used history text books in American high schools is A People's History of the United States, by the communist Howard Zinn, most parents simply can't trust the education their children receive at their local public school and many simply can't afford to send their child to a school that would teach them strong civic values.

Overwhelmingly, children from disadvantaged backgrounds go to school, but don't receive an education. A system of glorified babysitting is not what Jefferson had in mind when he said to, "crusade against ignorance; establish & improve the law for educating the common people." He would have understood that empowering parents with the ability to give their children a useful education is important for the vitality of the country.

The system of public school education in America is structured to protect teachers unions and government employees over the interests of parents and children, and worse, the "education" most students receive is thinly disguised indoctrination. Many American students graduate without knowing their "Three Rs," but with the sense that America is and has been a racist, imperialist, uncaring nation.

Jefferson dreamed of an America populated by educated, virtuous citizens who both cultivated useful life skills and the civic knowledge necessary to maintain a strong representative republic. However, that dream cannot be accomplished without reorienting education policies to give more control to states, localities and parents.

The Sage of Monticello wrote to Virginia Governor John Tyler Sr. in 1810, "I have indeed two great measures at heart, without which no republic can maintain itself in strength. 1. That of general education, to enable every man to judge for himself what will secure or endanger his freedom. 2. To divide every county into hundreds, of such size that all the children of each will be within a central school within it."

Although America has nominally achieved universal education, we have failed to appreciate Jefferson's other maxim, that education policy is best set on a level closer to the people that it serves. Nationalizing policies like No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top have put education policies out of step with the needs of communities, violated the principle of federalism, buried teachers in paperwork, and encouraged a "race to the bottom" reduction in standards. These policies do students no favors, and insteadpresent obstacles to real progress in the static education monolith.

The key to solving most of the glaring weaknesses in our system of education is breaking the public school monopoly. Empowering parents with the opportunity and funds to make educational choices for their children will force schools to compete for students, sinking or swimming based on their performance and responsiveness to the needs of their students and parents.

The Jeffersonian vision, combining federalism, civics, and school choice for parents, is key to a new birth of freedom in American education.

Jarrett Stepman is the assistant editor of Guns and Patriots and a writer for Human Events. He is currently working on a book about Jacksonian-era America, and can be reached at

Inez Feltscher is a first-year student at the University of Virginia School of Law, and previously worked in the K-12 education reform movement, advocating for school choice. You can contact her on Twitter at @inezfeltscher.

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