Diary

Hey, why not apologize for this American transgression?

Hey — all you liberals out there! If you think Donald Trump is offensive when he talks about minority populations such as Latinos and Muslims, and you want to distance yourself as far as possible from his cretinous ideas, even to the point of apologizing for America should he become leader, then let me make a suggestion:

Start apologizing for public schools in the same way.

America’s public school system was birthed as the result of xenophobic nationalist ideas that make Trump’s rhetoric seem like banter at a Victorian tea party. And what’s worse is that the sentiments and approaches that pushed our schools to their current restricted-access configuration (you can only go to the public school in your tax district if you want a free education) increased in virulence over time, and led to some people proposing laws saying no one could go to anything but one of the nation’s anti-Catholic public schools.

Yes, that’s right. Anti-Catholic. If you look at the history of public schools in America, you find that the push for so-called common schools began in the mid 1800s and overlapped a time of fear of new immigrants, immigrants who were not like the previous ones coming to our shores who blended in with a homogenous white, Protestant culture. No, the newer crowd was different. They spoke different languages, dressed and ate differently and, most important to those already here, worshipped differently. Most were Catholics. What better way to change those threatening “Roman” ideas than to force immigrant kids into “nonsectarian” public schools?

Of course, “nonsectarian” had a different meaning back then. It didn’t mean nonreligious. It meant “nondenominational Christianity.” The new common schools were drenched in religion of a Protestant variety — hymn singing, Bible reading, and praying, none of which followed the Catholics’ Douay Bible or prayerbooks. No surprise then that the move to open Catholic schools started at the same time anti-Catholics pushed for laws restricting where kids could go to school, trying to force them into the new public institutions.

Anyone who lived through the election of John F. Kennedy to the presidency in the 1960s knows that anti-Catholicism was such a strong sentiment in this country that it still persisted even into the 20th century. Fears that Kennedy would answer to the pope first, America second, were shared by many ordinary voters. But if you step back a little over a decade earlier, you’ll see that anti-Catholicism fueled the birth of an organization that still exists today and fights vouchers to religious schools in court. Americans for the Separation of Church and State started out in 1947 under a different name — Protestants and Other Americans United for Separation of Church and State. They only shortened their name in 1971, and when they sprang up it was in reaction to some court rulings, one of which said public money could be used for buses to Catholic schools.

Go back 20 some years before that group’s formation, and you find the pinnacle of anti-Catholic school policy. In 1922, the voters of Oregon supported a law that forced all kids into public schools. It was illegal to attend another school, even if your parents paid for it. Nowhere in the law was the word Catholic used, but it was viewed as an anti-Catholic measure and campaigned for by using anti-Catholic propaganda, including a booklet telling the fictional tale of a Catholic priest who burns down a public school. The Democratic candidate for governor of the state supported the law, by the way.

It didn’t last long, thank goodness. The US Supreme Court unanimously struck it down in 1925  in a famous ruling containing this stirring passage:

“The fundamental theory of liberty upon which all governments in this Union repose excludes any general power of the state to standardize its children by forcing them to accept instruction from public teachers only. The child is not the mere creature of the state…”

School voucher opponents and public school advocates today are likely to be as appalled by this history as they might be horrified by Donald Trump’s ideas. Why not repudiate both then? Why not revisit the history of public education and ask the “what if” question — what if the growth of public schools had not been co-opted by a distasteful bigoted movement? Would we have a K-12 system that allowed for choice? I think we would.

I raise this history today because the University of Arkansas’ Education Reform project released a study of studies earlier this month that concludes voucher students the world over score higher than their public school counterparts. The study can be found here. It’s important to note that they looked at only “gold standard” work — studies where a control group of similar students existed. There are plenty of weak and poorly done studies that come up with other results. I know. When I was involved in the school choice movement in Vermont years ago, I confronted those studies as I debated voucher opponents. The amount of junk research in the field is enormous.

For those who’d like to know more about the history of public schools in America, I recommend a stellar book, The State and the Non-Public School by Lloyd Jorgenson. Take a peek at the cover. It’s a Thomas Nast cartoon of crocodiles coming on shore threatening New York students. Except the crocs are really bishops, their miters made to look like bestial mouths.

Years ago, I chatted with Joregenson after reading his well-researched book. He told me he’d decided to write it after doing another history of public schools in which he found a lot of celebratory literature, folks patting themselves on the back for this great system of ours. He’s not anti-public school by any means, but, as a historian, he knew of the anti-Catholic movement and how it interplayed with public school system formation. So he set off to research and write a book about that.

Liberals seem to be keen on apologizing for America’s past transgressions. Funny, but I find few willing to offer regrets for this bit of history, let alone trying to correct it.

Libby Sternberg is a novelist.