Strengthening Constitutional Self-Government

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How to Reform Education in Ohio: A Symposium

On Principle, v5n6

December 1997

by Robert Alt

In order to address the problem of public education reform, a basic question must be answered: What is the public interest in education?

Ask most educators these days what the purpose of education is, and they will quickly respond that education is necessary to prepare children to compete in a global economy.

This is true, but it is woefully incomplete. Public education exists first and foremost to produce good citizens, who indeed ought to have the independence and responsibility that comes with economic self-reliance. Some of our earliest laws express the American Founders’ view of the substance and the purpose of public education.

According to the Northwest Ordinance of 1787, for example:


Religion, morality and knowledge being necessary to good government and the happiness of mankind, schools and the means of education shall forever be encouraged.


The U.S. Supreme Court, in a decision offered in 1925 that still stands, expanded upon this view so common during the founding era. The Court, in Pierce v. Society of Sisters found that it was perfectly appropriate for the state:


to require that all children of proper age attend some school, that teachers shall be of good moral character and patriotic disposition, that certain studies plainly essential to good citizenship must be taught, and that nothing may be taught which is manifestly inimical to the public welfare.


This understanding of education is the antithesis of how public education is carried out today. Gone is promoting morals, religion, and the values of citizenship. In place of morality, students are taught from the earliest ages to reject the moral strictures of their parents and society. Religion, once inseparable from education, is treated with such hostility that even voluntary student initiated prayer raises federal lawsuits. As for patriotism and citizenship, in a value-free system of education where toleration is the highest virtue, the one thing that cannot be allowed are absolutes. For post-modern educators, a regime that claims as its foundation inalienable truths cannot be trusted or promoted.

The result of public education’s stray is far too predictable. Despite spending more money per pupil than their private counterparts, public schools produce students who lack the basic skills and the knowledge and morality requisite to effectively participate in society.

This then, is the task of education reform in Ohio and elsewhere: the restoration to the classroom of morality, religion, and basic knowledge of constitutional government requisite for participatory citizenship to the classroom. Whether through private school vouchers, home school consortiums, or public education, true education reform is not possible unless parents assure that the basic values necessary for properly ordered men and citizens are returned to their rightful place in the classroom.

Robert D. Alt is an Adjunct Fellow at the Ashbrook Center and a Researcher at the Heritage Foundation.

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