Vermonters for Better Education
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(05/20/00) You might think that I would be pretty happy with the legislature's passage of a school choice bill, given the fact that I've been a school choice activist for four years now. However, you won't hear any champagne corks popping over at my home. This bill was brought to the floor of the House by an opponent of school choice. If he is comfortable with the program, it doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure out it isn't much of a departure from our current public school system with its monopoly-like control over customers, a system which has come to occupy a sacrosanct position in many people's minds.
The history of the system is, unfortunately, more shameful than sacred.
When public schools first began in the 1800s, Catholic immigration was overwhelming, and Americans back then, much as in JFK's day, saw each Catholic as an agent of the pope owing more allegiance to Rome than to their new country. One of the ways in which xenophobic Americans addressed this perceived problem was by passing compulsory education laws and making only the schools they controlled free. In these new free common schools, kids were then taught a nondenominational, or nonsectarian, version of Protestant Christianity in order to blanche their threatening papist views out of them and make them fit into a homogenous Protestant culture. Here's one story of how this was done:
In 1859, a lad by the name of Thomas Wall was called upon to recite the Ten Commandments in his Boston public school room. Being a good Catholic, he repeatedly refused to recite the Protestant version of these rules so McLaurin Cook, the assistant principal, whipped the boy's hands until they bled and the child relented. Wall's father took the case to court but the judge decided that the child had been punished justifiably for insubordination.
At the same time that Catholic students were forced to accept the religious indoctrination of the new common schools, Catholic schools were methodically cut off from public funding, even though in some communities, they had been supported with public funds.
Religion itself, of course, was ultimately litigated out of public schools, replaced instead by a "secular consensus." Though we now claim to value diversity, it wasn't that long ago that New York parents could not remove their children from sex education programs even if these programs were counter to their religious convictions. Like the Boston child Thomas Wall, the kids had to participate or be accused of insubordination.
School choice opponents preach the need to preserve the public schools as a foundation of American life. Years ago, one public school champion vowed that his organization would "stand guard on the outer walls of the temple of liberty, cry out the warning when danger appears and take its place in the front rank of defenders of the public schools." This is a quote from the king kleagle of the Pacific domain of the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, hardly someone school choice opponents would like to be associated with today.
But wait! Before you dial the ReactionLine number, don't get me wrong. I'm not saying that opponents of choice are Klansmen or anti-Catholic bigots. And I'm not belittling the very real contributions ALL school systems make to our country. What I am saying is that public education should really mean the public's responsibility to education ALL children -- WHEREVER THEIR NEEDS ARE BEST MET.
An education system true to democratic values would have allowed little Thomas Wall to be free to go to a school where his conscience was free. Parents who don't favor certain brands of a secular-consensus-driven curricula should be free to choose other schools without financial penalty. We're entering the 21st century. Isn't it time to get rid of the unsavory remnants of a 19th century educational system?