Mark Franke: The public in public schools

    Mark Franke

    I consider it a good day when I read or hear something that had never crossed my mind previously. Being induced to think anew about an issue from an entirely different perspective is stimulating and, on occasion, enlightening. I am always willing to rethink my position although, truth be told, I don’t often change my mind. Still, there is value in the exercise itself.

    To this end I will read almost anything. I subscribe to more than a few magazines and journals, changing subscriptions on a regular basis in order to freshen my perspective. One periodical I do not cancel in spite of its exorbitant subscription price is the Wall Street Journal. Its news pages are reasonably objective given the current lack of journalistic professionalism and its editorial pages are free to analyze the issues of the day without undue influence or rigid ideological dictates. In other words, the WSJ manages to irritate just about everyone in any given week.

    The WSJ’s latest assault on my mental complacency was an op-ed column by a Columbia School of Law professor, Philip Hamburger, who argued, incredibly, that public schools are unconstitutional. Unconstitutional?

    Hamburger’s argument is that education is nothing more or less than speech, that old-fashioned right under the First Amendment which gets in the way of progress in our brave new world. As such, it is protected from government oversight and indoctrination. Since these are young children we are speaking of, parents have inherent rights about what is being taught.

    Not so, according to the failed gubernatorial candidate in Virginia, who found that a majority of his state’s voters disagreed with his opinion that parents should butt out. It is no coincidence that the right to petition the government falls under that same pesky amendment that guarantees free speech.

    So are public schools unconstitutional? Apparently not in Indiana, as our 1851 Constitution requires the state “to provide, by law, for a general and uniform system of Common Schools, wherein tuition shall be without charge, and equally open to all.” Who would argue with Article VIII when it states that “[k]nowledge and learning, generally diffused throughout a community, [is] essential to the preservation of a free government”?

    The progressives of the late 19th century who advocated a common school system thought they were in service to humanity and American democracy. To a large extent they were, but one must keep in mind that the guiding principle of early progressivism was that people could be perfected, even if having to be dragged kicking and screaming into this unwanted nirvana. It really isn’t surprising that their 21st-century progeny have lost patience with the pace of this march toward perfection.

    Therein lies the irony. Professor Hamburger sees today’s progressives, at least the most extreme in the group, as mimicking the tactics of those 19th-century nativists who saw public schools as re-education camps for Catholics and immigrants. They see a homogenized and compliant America where the outliers, the politically incorrect in today’s lingo, have been re-educated into conforming.

    But many parents have had enough. And they are not powerless. There are approximately 100,000 school board members in the nation, presumably mostly elected locally in sometimes spirited campaigns. It truly is the school boards that validate Thomas Jefferson’s quote that “the government closest to the people serves the people best.”

    And the right to attend school board meetings and speak on issues is fundamental to our democracy. Those of a totalitarian bent will see this as threatening, certainly threatening to their ability to shape our children into their progressive ideal.

    So this has become the front line in the battle against the Deep State. Note the recent school-board elections across the nation that saw out-of-touch incumbents involuntarily retired. It is only a small step, yet an encouraging one. And we hoi polloi get to vote again in 2022. Don’t you just love democracy, American style?