A Brief History of Education in America

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The history of U.S. education is fascinating. Before the mid-1800s, elementary and secondary education was based entirely on parental choice. Between the 1800s and the 1970s, government controlled-education was in ascendancy until it eventually permitted almost no options to families and children. Then came the 1980s and a reemergence of education freedom from government. Parental choice made a comeback, with homeschooling as its best, most successful example, as this chart illustrates.

The larger national school choice movement missed an opportunity over the past two decades by not following homeschooling’s model of universality, focused state planning, and commitment. The homeschooling community was united behind its objectives. The national school choice movement has been divided about its aims.

Still trusting government bureaucracy more than families, liberals and neo-conservatives insisted on ‘targeted’ school choice programs – most often using government vouchers – serving low-income, disabled, and failing public school children only. Conservatives consistently argued for freedom of educational choice for all children using education tax credits. The liberal/neo-conservative camp prevailed, and they were successful at first, with Milwaukee and Cleveland leading the way. Their crowning achievement came in 2003 when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled school vouchers constitutional.

Today, however, the ‘targeted’ public-private school choice effort is losing ground to charter schools, which are generally controlled by the same government officials that control public schools. A number of hard-fought true choice programs have been dismantled or defunded, and others are at significant risk. Some in freedom of choice camp now privately concede that the ‘targeted’ voucher strategy was a mistake because the constituency it served is simply too small to overcome powerful teachers unions and public school bureaucracies.

School choice proponents have gained valuable insight from their efforts over the past three decades. Conservatives have every reason to believe that, when political winds shift, genuine universal school choice will rise out of the ashes of the ‘targeted’ strategy.

Polling data continue to show that families haven’t lost any of their desire for educational freedom for their children. And they are likely to gain a large, important group as allies: local (property), state, and federal taxpayers who are beginning to realize school choice tax credits would be a less costly way to educate America’s children.