Thomas Jefferson was convinced that democracy depended on a well-educated citizenry and he was right. Our nation’s founders rejected the rule of divinely ordained aristocratic elites. We were to be governed by the common consent of the people. That meant every citizen would need an education.

All of us needed to be able to comprehend the issues and weigh the opinions necessary to render an informed decision whenever we are called upon to fulfill our civic duties. The duties of free citizens are not responsibilities that anyone should take lightly. They range from voting in elections, to holding public office, to serving on juries that make decisions over matters of life and death.

To assist our fledgling democracy, Jefferson founded the University of Virginia and developed extensive plans for making education available and affordable to all citizens.

He was especially concerned that the poor and disadvantaged be offered opportunity to rise in life by their merits–on the basis of their abilities and hard work. In his day, the wealthy sent their daughters to finishing schools and their sons to private academies that prepared them for college.

Other children, however, if were fortunate enough to receive an education, attended “petty schools” where, at best, they learned to read and write. Few were educated beyond the fifth grade. Jefferson envisioned a system of public education that would take any bright, hard-working young person all the way through college–even if their parents could not afford it.

Since the days of Jefferson, public education in America has advanced the values of both equality and democracy. Our best educators have advocated giving all children an equal chance to learn the skills by which they can elevate themselves by their own abilities and hard work. Our finest teachers have worked tirelessly to transmit to each generation the values that sustain our democracy–freedom of conscience, freedom of expression, respect for minorities and equal rights for all persons.

Public education in America has done a remarkable job. For two centuries it has been teaching the children of tens of millions of immigrants, speaking hundreds of foreign languages, how to speak, read and write in English. Schools have been the single most effective institution in our society for equipping immigrants and the children of immigrants with the skills necessary to find a place in our society. They are one of the few institutions consistently encouraging immigrants, minorities and the disadvantaged to aspire to accomplish more than had previously been thought possible within America’s network of social, civil and economic systems.

Public education’s success may also prove its undoing. When this nation was being torn apart by racial divisions, the schools were pressed into service to solve our differences. The courts ruled that “separate, but equal” schools were inherently “unequal.” They were. So, segregation ended and all of America’s public schools were integrated.

Soon, after only a few courts had to issue orders sending school buses to collect children and integrate schools, it looked like the public schools had solved our racial problems. In places they did, but in too many places the problem merely took on another guise.

Religion in the South played a big role in segregation. In time, it learned to shift the frame of reference for its beef with public education from race to culture.

After integration, middle-class whites moved to the suburbs and took the tax dollars that paid for public education with them. At the same time, conservative churches started private religious schools and an entire home-school movement blossomed.

Meanwhile, affluent whites went on putting their children in private academies and complained all the more about the tuition they were paying to see that their children had the advantage of a superior education.

After a while, minorities began advancing socially and started moving to the suburbs where the schools were funded and still considered “good.” Then, demands for school “vouchers” began to swell and more conservative churches started private religious schools.

As middle-class suburban schools became more and more integrated, political movements were launched to protest taxes, starve the schools of funding, take control of school boards and regulate public school systems into oblivion.

Through it all, “conservatives” have droned on and on relentlessly about America’s supposedly failing public schools. Today, calls for “vouchers” can be heard everywhere you turn. If present trends continue, “vouchers” for private education will soon be replacing the system of public schools that our nation has been developing for two centuries.

A “voucher” system will dramatically change the character and values of education in America.

No market exists for “secular” schools. Schools that teach the values of democracy, equality, and pluralism are what Americans have been told are failing.

Most private religious schools have no desire and little incentive to teach democratic values. Their fundamental concern is to assure that their particular religious worldview prevails through the clash of cultures that is already taking place within American society.

Most elite private schools already give little more than lip service to egalitarian values. Their fundamental concern is to assure that the children of their affluent clients acquire whatever skills, attitudes and aptitudes are necessary to sustain and preserve their financial and social advantages.

Neither system of voucher schools bodes well for the future of public education or for democracy. The confluence of wealthy elites and religious culture warriors that currently dominate our political life charts a path with a trajectory for education that differs from what most people expect.

Americans will probably have to learn by their own bitter experience that conflict between religions can prove to be much more intransigent and explosive than differences over race and ethnicity.

Bruce Prescott is executive director of Mainstream Oklahoma Baptists.

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