Given the state that many of our public schools are in right now, it may seem strange to be offering up thanks for them. However, as we prepare for a new administration and a new year, now may be the best time to step back and think about why we have public education, and why it is still essential to get it right.

I recently revisited the January 2007 report, “Why We Still Need Public Schools: Public Education for the Common Good” by Nancy Kober at the Center on Education Policy. While I enjoy the historical summary by Kober, equally helpful are the historical quotations highlighted throughout the report which capture the long-held and long-contested battle for public education in this country.

Reflect on some of these:

The whole people must take upon themselves the education of the whole people and be willing to bear the expenses of it. There should not be a district of one mile square, without a school in it, not founded by a charitable individual, but maintained at the public expense of the people themselves. —John Adams, U.S. President, 1785

It was in making education not only common to all, but in some sense compulsory on all, that the destiny of the free republic of America was practically settled. —James Russel Lowell, poet, editor, and diplomat, 1870

[T]he fact remains that the whole country is directly interested in the education of every child that lives within its borders. The ignorance of any part of the American people so deeply concerns all the rest that there can be no doubt of the right to pass laws compelling the attendance of every child at school… —Frederick Douglass, African American writer and abolitionist, 1883.

A republican government should be based on free and equal education among the people.—Susan B. Anthony, 1900.

Above all things I hope the education of the common people will be attended to, convinced that on their good sense we may rely with the most security for the preservation of a due degree of liberty. Thomas Jefferson, U.S. President, 1787.

Education, then, beyond all other devices of human origin, is the great equalizer of the conditions of men–the balance-wheel of the social machinery…It does better than disarm the poor of their hostility towards the rich; it prevents being poor. Horace Mann, 1848

Fewer pillories and whipping posts and smaller gaols [jails], with their usual expenses and taxes, will be necessary when our youth are properly educated, than at present. I believe it could be proved that the expenses of confining, trying, and executing criminals amount every year, in most of the counties, to more money than would be sufficient to maintain the schools. Benjamin Rush, physician and statesman,1786

What the best and wisest parent wants for his own child, that must the community want for all of its children. Any other ideal for our schools is narrow and unlovely; acted upon, it destroys our democracy. John Dewey, 1907.

While each of the statements above was made within specific contexts and may be surrounded by some other debates, taken for this moment at least at face value, they speak a powerful truth about the role of education in a free nation. They also point a finger at us now one even two centuries beyond, that we are still debating in some places when we should be living in the fulfillment of these promises. These should be our determined goals, and the working platform for the next Secretary of Education.

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