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Politics and American Schools

Written by Charles D. Bernstein (Ph.D)

There is widespread disagreement about the purpose of school: Should it function to end poverty? Promote morality? Make everyone equal? Prepare consumers or workers? Inform future voters? Encourage excellence and innovation in our economy? Nurture kind and loving people? Stimulate artistic creativity? The disagreements are usually buried in the assumptions surrounding education and are rarely addressed overtly. Instead, various interest groups lobby quietly to implement their own vision of schools (and, ultimately, the types of people they will produce).

Education in the American Colonies

Schooling was not a focus of the Founding Fathers. It is not mentioned in the Constitution nor any of the federalist debates. That is not to say that the Founding Fathers were not interested in education. For the most part, they were highly educated, though often self taught, and well read. They practiced law at the same time that they were plant and animal scientists (as farmers), physics and chemistry researchers, political theorists, and literary figures. Indeed, scholars who have studied the inscriptions in family bibles have suggested that literacy in the United States was higher in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries than it is today. It is not clear why education was ignored when slavery, taxes, banking, and many other issues were part of the political turmoil that ultimately led to the creation of America. It may have been that the formation of youth was considered too personal and too private to be a political matter.

Early in our history, school was considered the domain of the family and local communities. Later, states took on advisory and eventually administrative roles pertaining to education. It was only after the launching of the Russian Sputnik satellite in 1957 that education became a matter of national interest. Congress made education a keystone of our defense system by adopting the National Defense Education Act in 1958 to improve the teaching of mathematics and sciences in local schools.

Politicization of American Education

The federal government’s interest in school improvement coincided with its new role in ensuring constitutionally guaranteed equity in public schools. In 1954, the U.S. Supreme Court’s decided in Brown v. Board of Education that separate schools for blacks and whites were inherently unequal. The issue of equal access to public schools was further emphasized in the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which primarily addressed racial segregation; the passage in 1972 of Title IX of the Civil Rights Act, which addressed gender discrimination; and the adoption of the Education for All Handicapped Children Act in 1974, which used federal moneys as a carrot to encourage full access to public schools by physically and mentally challenged students.

The result of increased politicization is that schools have become the locus for interest groups to address whatever particular interest they have. Rights groups have pushed to have “rights” become a focus of the schools, from anti-bullying curricula to cultural curricula involving different genders, races, and religions. Environmental groups have managed to require the teaching of ecology and conservation in schools. Faith-based groups have worked tirelessly for almost 100 years to exclude the teaching of evolution, sex education, and what they consider the secularization of American life, meaning the absence of prayer and religious dogma. Finally, the “one size fits all” lobby that includes book publishers, unionized teachers, politicians, and bureaucrats has finally managed to introduce a single, national school curriculum called “Common Core” at the same time as it succeeded in passing a national health-care program.

The requirement by virtually all state education agencies that textbooks be approved, or “adopted,” by state education agencies at a cost of more than a million dollars each means that small or innovative publishers are excluded from creating primary textbooks. In order to be adopted by certain large and either politically conservative agencies (e.g., Texas, Florida) or political liberal agencies (e.g., California, New York, Pennsylvania), they must be edited (or, as cynics might say, “censored”) to be acceptable to various religious, political, and special interest groups. The result is often vanilla mush.

Private Schools Offer Choice

For better and worse, parochial schools have been very strong politically in California. The result is that they have managed to protect all private schools from the myriad special interest requirements that burden public schools, such as the Education Code and adoption requirements. This has allowed a pluralistic private school industry to flourish.

As public schools move more toward a uniform curriculum dictated by Washington, DC, bureaucrats, private schools are able to offer a wide range of curricula and emphases, thereby creating a choice for parents who can afford private tuition. Proponents of public charter schools had hoped that they might offer true choice, but—in California at least—too many provisions of the state’s mammoth Education Code still apply to charters. Conversely, Early Learning Institute (“ELI”) and its families have benefited from the freedoms still available to private schools.

We tend to mock the lack of intellectual freedoms when they are imposed by totalitarian and dictatorial regimes (e.g., China, Cuba, Iran). Hypocritically, we are too often blind to our lack of freedoms when it occurs in our own legal structures or even informally through pressures to be “politically correct.” This is especially onerous when conformity affects the institutions through which some of us expect our youth to learn and practice free inquiry and out-of-the box thinking.

Charles D. Bernstein, Ph.D.
President, Early Learning Institute
December 22, 2014

Charles D. Bernstein, Ph.D. (languages and linguistics), is the president and founder of Early Learning Institute, a Palo Alto-based organization that operates child care centers and private schools in the Bay Area—including the HeadsUp! Child Development Centers in Palo Alto, North San Jose, and Pleasanton, Emerson School in Palo Alto and Hacienda School in Pleasanton—and offers writing programs for school-age children.

Charles D. Bernstein (Ph.D)

Charles D. Bernstein, Ph.D. (languages and linguistics), is the president and founder of Early Learning Institute, a Palo Alto based organization that operates child care centers and private schools in the Bay Area—including the HeadsUp! Child Development Centers in Palo Alto, North San Jose, and Pleasanton, Emerson School in Palo Alto and Hacienda School in Pleasanton—and offers writing programs for school age children.

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