Education that Works 4

Good schooling requires individual responsibility accountability.

Successful public schools have been around for a long time.  The Puritan fathers of Massachusetts required publicly-funded schools in each town as called for by the "Old Deluder Satan" act of 1647.  As its name suggests, the laswmakers had an explicitly religious motive:

It being one chief project of that old deluder, Satan, to keep men from the knowledge of the Scriptures... It is therefore ordered that every township in this jurisdiction, after the Lord hath increased them to fifty households shall forthwith appoint one within their town to teach all such children as shall resort to him to write and read, whose wages shall be paid either by the parents or masters of such children, or by the inhabitants in general.

The great and the good of 17th-century Massachusetts felt that reading the Bible was so important that education deserved funding from the "inhabitants in general," that is to say, the taxpayers.  This goal of literacy was all-but-universally met until recent decades.

Public education declined when it became less of the sacred calling as the Puritans viewed it and turned into a battle over funding and political power.  The New York Times lamented the fact that our educational system no longer serves as a "great leveler" between rich and poor.

There are ways to avoid the turf battle.  Sweden has a voucher system where money follows parent's choice of school; the only way for a school to get more money is by making parents want to send their kids there.  Teacher's unions didn't like the idea, but there was enough concern for educating children effectively that the 1994 law had broad support.

The system works well:

"Our aim is that by the time students finish school, they can set their own learning goals," says Christian Wetell, head teacher at Kunskapsskolan Enskede. "Three or four students in each year may not manage this, but most will."

Out of 10,000 students being educated by his chain of schools, three or four each year won't graduate with a proper education.  An American public school system of similar size would be lucky to have only three or four hundred failed students annually; more likely, it's three or four thousand.

Religion, Money, and Politics in Education

The only real issue in the Swedish voucher discussion was money - existing schools realized that they'd lose students to competitors.  Battles over education in the US are much fiercer not only because more money is involved but because of the long-term religious base of the public school system.

No school board would dare to say so today, but the whole reason for setting up the first public schools in America was religious education.  This is clearly stated in the Old Deluder Satan Act.  Towns of fifty families had to hire a schoolmaster to teach children to read and write.  Towns of a hundred families needed a grammar schoolmaster to prepare children to attend Harvard College.  Harvard's mission at the time was to prepare young men for the ministry.  Emphasis on getting kids into the Ivies goes a long way back, but the Ivies in those days trained students to run churches, not to run the country.

Popular interest in education was based on teaching children how to read the Bible.  The Puritans valued literacy to ensure that, as the law put it, "ye ould deluder, Satan" could not use illiteracy to "keepe men from the knowledge of ye Scriptures."

The New England Primer, which was published in 1690, started out, "In Adam's fall, we sinned all," combining the doctrine of original sin with learning the alphabet.  It was used nationwide until well into the 19th century.  The idea that religious education in publicly-funded state and local schools somehow violates the Constitution of the United States has no foundation in historical fact.

Protestants and Catholics

Religious disagreement surfaced immediately - the Puritan system had a distinctly anti-Catholic tone.  Catholics founded the state of Maryland, but had become a sufficiently-oppressed minority that the Jesuits started a school to train boys for the priesthood in 1677.  Wealthy Catholics sent their children to Europe instead of depending on Protestant-infected public schools.  As the Catholic population increased, enough parents were willing to fund a parallel educational system that it evolved into today's system of about 7,000 Catholic schools across America.

Catholic schools have remained under control of the church, unlike the Puritan public schools which were controlled by government officials and employees.  While Catholic schools have suffered financial problems, they haven't been subject to the "culture war" battles over what to teach.  Government-funded schools, on the other hand, have been whipsawed by many laws and court decisions about what they can and can't teach.

California public schools are required to teach about the achievements of homosexuals and Maryland public schools are required to teach ecological awareness, for example.  Despite many attempts to establish educational standards as Massachusetts tried to do in 1642, educational achievements of the public schools have declined as costs have risen.

Home Schooling

From the beginning of the "culture wars," moderate-income parents who wanted to protect their children from "ye ould deluder Satan" have sought to educate their children at home.  Not being able to pay for private schools, they fell back on Massachusetts' 1642 law which said that education was primarily a parental responsibility.

Rather than addressing parents' concerns, educrats preferred to invoke the precedent of the 1647 act which said children could be removed from parents who weren't educating them adequately while ignoring its religious foundation, of course.  Child Protective Services (CPS) agencies were happy to charge parents with "educational neglect" and try to force kids back into public schools.

Throughout the 1970s, home schoolers banded together to protect themselves from the educrats.  After much political infighting, most state laws allow parents to homeschool their children even when parents aren't certified as teachers.

Home schooling was born in the conviction that "ye ould deluder Satan" had taken over public education, but USA Today reports that non-religious parents now home school for academic reasons:

Joyce Burges, who co-founded National Black Home Educators (NBHE) with her husband, Eric, says most of the parents she deals with have practical, not religious, reasons for home schooling. NBHE's network of families has seen a jump from about 500 home-schoolers a decade ago to about 2,500 today, she says.

She says her area near Baton Rouge has some of the lowest-scoring schools in the nation. "A lot of the children are just falling through the cracks," Burges says. Her five children, ages 16 to 35, were home-schooled, says Burges, a Democrat running for City Council in Baker City, La. "Parents are struggling, trying to see what they can do."

One of the advantages of home schooling is that families can buy houses in areas which have lousy public schools.  Such houses are often a lot cheaper, which makes it easier to give up one parents' income in favor of home schooling.

Ignore the Wealthy

Wealthy parents can educate their children effectively and always will; we needn't worry about them.  The real area of concern is what to do for the children of non-rich parents like most of us.

The solution of letting less wealthy parents choose their childrens' schools by granting vouchers that follow the student works in Sweden, in Washington, DC, and elsewhere around the world.  It's a measure of the stakes involved that such an obvious and proven solution hasn't been adopted everywhere.

Teacher's unions reluctance to give up money combines with liberal fears that parents might choose education with a religions content.  This makes this battle more contentious in American than in any other country.  With so much energy going into fights over money and curriculum, it's no wonder that public school kids learn less than they should.  As long as our schools are controlled by unfireable government placeholders who support the most corrupt and retrograde politicians, that will never change.

Public education is required by law, it's free, and it's losing market share.  Our system worked for 300 years or so, but no longer.  As the Telegraph points out, many public school graduates are "fairly useless."  As more and more parents become disenchanted with public schools, home schooling becomes pretty much the only practical solution for most parents.  Then we'll have come full circle, back to parent-run education as in the Middle Ages.

Fortunately, the Internet offers so many high-quality, free educational resources that motivated parents can teach their children pretty much anything.  Unfortunately, that requires that parents pour their time into their children instead of into their careers, hobbies, and entertainment.  What's more important?  The answer most people choose isn't the one we'd wish they would.

Editor's Note:  After we published the "Education That Works" series in 2012,a reader asked us to plan a course of action which parents can carry out to educate their children.  This proved more difficult than it might appear: we first had to figure out the primary purpose of education, because it's hard to write a clarion "call to action" if you haven't defined the goal.  We had a simple way for society to evaluate a public school and we wrote a series of articles about the purpose of education, but nothing jelled that really addressed the question.

Finally, we had an insight - the sole purpose of education from the customer's point of view is to preserve the family whose children are being educated.  This applies even in the animal world: it's why mama bears teach their cubs to hunt, fish, and avoid humans.  Parents who don't care about preserving their families won't care about their children's education, of course, but those who do, care very much - and for those who don't, well, odds are their offspring will get weeded out of the gene pool in short order.

This article and its successors is directed at parents who care enough about their children's education to take action and want to know how to go about it.

Will Offensicht is a staff writer for and an internationally published author by a different name.  Read other articles by Will Offensicht or other articles on Society.
Reader Comments


You wrote an interesting article covering most all of the options parents have to educate their children. I would like to see you conclude your article with a call to action on what we as taxpayers can do and what, in your opinion, is the best of the options.

February 29, 2012 12:51 PM
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