Public School System

Public schools were established early in American history. The norm in Europe in the seventeen hundreds was private and religious schools established for the wealthy and the aristocracy. Only small numbers of working class children had access to formal education.

During the colonial era there was great hostility to the aristocracy and their special privileges, and the concept of public schools was developed with the intent to educate the children of all citizens. The concept grew into the school system we have today. There have always been a small number of religious schools to serve the children of particular faiths.

Montanans look back on our heritage of rural one room, one teacher schools with admiration and respect. They brought immigrant and farm children into the American culture and prepared them to function in a democratic nation. Many of these children went on to Public Universities and became leaders in science, government, and the arts. My grandfather finished the third grade, my father the tenth. I finished graduate school and was the first in my family to graduate from college. My father’s grandchildren almost all graduated from college. This system brought us from a family of uneducated coal miners who fled the coal pits of Northern England to a family of professionally educated people.

This does not mean that the American education system is perfect. It was designed to be a local system governed by the patrons of the school district. The curriculum was somewhat standardized based on the English concept of education. One of the original goals was to integrate non English immigrant children into the Anglo American culture and language. They did a good job on that, and still do. Now the expectations for education are greater which means higher standards for course work and less emphasis on life skills. The one room school is nearly gone. The cost of per pupil for education has risen faster than inflation. This had led to consolidation into larger centralized schools. In Montana this means longer bus rides. It also means complex social problems in the schools. It is much harder for patrons of a large school district to manage their schools or get problems addressed.

Because the state and the federal government provide funds for school districts, they have earned a say in curriculum standards and management. This removes more control from the local patrons. Because of these factors more people are home schooling or forming small religious schools where they have control over the education and socialization process.

There has been a movement in several states to establish schools outside the school districts but supported with state and or federal funds to provide for special needs or special interests. Control of these schools often rests with the administration or an appointed board. These schools are nonprofit. There is a lot of ideology swirling around the use of taxpayer money to support institutions outside of the traditional school district plan. There have been some profit oriented schools established at the high school and university levels. There is no clear evidence that these schools provide higher quality education, but then the value of devices, including testing, that measure the quality of education is open to debate.

My bias is to support the traditional school form with local control, and clearly established high state standards. Once again, I believe that big is bad. The smaller schools seem to have a better overall success rate with graduation and college admissions. If their approach isn’t successful, it is easier to make the changes needed. Unfortunately, they often do not have the funding to meet the special needs of a handful of students. I am not convinced that the national government has any business in school funding or rule making. I understand that in a number of states the voters have views on education that will not help their children succeed or rise to a professional class. If people are unhappy with the schools their children are scheduled to attend, there are alternatives, but they will cost money. I sent two of my children to a religious high school, because I didn’t like the large public high school they would have attended. We weren’t interested in that particular faith at all.