The Founding Fathers Rejected School Choice


My alma mater

Earlier today University of Western Washington history professor Johann Neem visited The Author’s Corner.  Yesterday he visited the pages of the Washington Post to talk more about public education.  As Neem correctly notes, the founding fathers believed that public schools were the foundation of a virtuous republic:

Here is a taste of his piece “Early America had school choice. The Founding Fathers rejected it.”

During the Colonial era and into the early American republic, most Americans shared DeVos’s notion that education was a family responsibility. Parents who could afford it taught their children at home, hired itinerant men or women who “kept” school for a fee, or sent older children to charter schools called academies. Most Americans had little formal schooling.

The revolution transformed how some Americans thought about education. These Americans agreed with Thomas Jefferson that the future of the republic depended on an educated citizenry. They also believed that the opportunities offered by schooling should be available to rich and poor alike. Many state constitutions included clauses like Georgia’s in 1777: “Schools shall be erected in each county, and supported at the general expense of the State.” But how to execute this directive? The best way, American leaders ultimately concluded, was to encourage local public schools and to limit the growth of academies.

As early as the 1780s, Massachusetts Gov. Samuel Adams asserted that academies increased inequality because well-off families chose them over local district schools. Citizens, Adams argued, “will never willingly and cheerfully support two systems of schools.” Others shared his concern. New York Gov. George Clinton argued in 1795 that academies served “the opulent” and that all children deserved access to “common schools throughout the state.”

Read more here.

4 thoughts on “The Founding Fathers Rejected School Choice

  1. Franklin’s (UPA) and Jefferson’s (UVA) secular university plans bucked the colonial American trend of universities founded by religious groups (Harvard, Yale, William and Mary, College of NJ (Rutgers) or had ties to organized religion (Oxford and Cambridge) designed to train Protestant Christian clergy. But Franklin and Jefferson saw the need to challenge the educational conventions of their day with broader knowledge spanning multiple disciplines (the sciences and liberal arts curricula).

    “What set Franklin’s notion of education apart was his insistence that a college should draw students of ability from all social strata and actively and purposefully cultivate civic values in these students and provide them with the practical skills necessary to address the pressing problems of the day. In short, a central purpose of higher education was service to society and to the commonwealth.”


  2. I would have liked to see more development of the historical argument in the original piece, which I read. In fact, he says that “during the Colonial era and into the early American republic, most Americans shared DeVos’s notion that education was a family responsibility.” That seems to contradict the assertion of the headline that the Founding Fathers rejected school choice. The only evidence offered for that assertion is Samuel Adams’ comment, the statement that an undefined number of “others” agreed with him, and Clinton’s argument. Just from what he reports of Clinton’s statement here, it does not necessarily support his assertion. Saying that others’ shared Adams’ concern is vague, and Adams’ statement itself does not quite apply to the exact question we are asking now. Horace Mann (1796-1859) wasn’t a Founding Father. Could we get some more development of exactly what the Founders thought on the subject? I thought the piece contained some intellectual bait and switch revolving around the somewhat ambiguous use of quotations and of the term school choice.


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