Most Americans are products of the public school’s 140-year near-monopoly on education, and have an understandable residual loyalty to our current educational settlement; many believe, as advocates of the “myth of the common school” have been arguing since Horace Mann, that only the public school can form citizens. But low test scores and concern over the moral vacuousness of both curriculum and school life dominated by peer culture have shaken faith in the public system. Parents are seeking alternatives, not only in private schools but in charter schools (legally “public” but functionally private), homeschooling, and cyberschools. Even those parents who do not want religion taught in the schools their children attend usually see no problem with other children attending schools whose religious character is preferred by their parents.
America did not always have a rigid educational establishment that claimed religious neutrality. Its rise was propelled by anti-Catholic sentiment, leading to a unified educational system that displaced the patchwork of local arrangements that prevailed in the early republic and that provided a degree of religious pluralism surprising to those raised with the contemporary idea of the separation of church and state. It was common in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries for public funding to be provided to schools that we would now consider “private” and religious, the great majority of them Protestant but some of them Catholic. These denominational arrangements were actually the norm in federally funded schooling for children on Indian reservations until the late nineteenth century.
Our nation needs to confront the loss of faith in public education, a loss fueled both by disappointing international comparisons of test results and by a severing of the rootedness of schools in local communities. Consolidation of school districts, professionalization of educational administration, the unresponsiveness of teachers’ unions to the concerns of parents, and ballooning state and federal requirements, all have led to a loss of confidence in America’s schools.
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