Franke: The ‘Public’ in Public Schools

December 8, 2021

by 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 that comes to hand. 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. Nor according to the National School Board Association which requested the U. S. Department of Justice to classify as domestic terrorists those parents who dare protest school board decisions. It is no coincidence that the right to petition the government falls under that same pesky amendment which 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”?

It has been a commonly held tenet among Americans that education is the pathway to a better future, the means by which each generation is better off economically than its predecessor. My blue-collar and agricultural ancestors certainly believed that, assuring that my generation became the first in the family to be largely college educated. It wasn’t just the three Rs that mattered; civics education was equally important, instilling a love for and dedication to a nation built on individual liberty.

So how could a national consensus be so rapidly and effectively shattered in just a few years? I suggest that it is because the citizen frog in the pot finally realized that the temperature had risen to scalding level. The woke brigade has overreached and can no longer rely on its media allies for a coverup. Hubris will do that to you.

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 reeducation camps for Catholics and immigrants. They see a homogenized and compliant America where the outliers, the politically incorrect in today’s lingo, have been reeducated into conforming. 

But again, 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. With the demise of township government in Indiana, it truly is the school boards which 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?

Mark Franke, M.B.A., an adjunct scholar of the Indiana Policy Review and its book reviewer, is formerly an associate vice-chancellor at Indiana University-Purdue University Fort Wayne.


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