An old Democratic voice for a truly public school system

When an Indiana judge refused to halt the nation’s most sweeping state voucher law this week, he partly relied on precedent that refuses to accept that only “public” schools make up the education system in the Hoosier State. As Judge Michael Keele’s ruling states

A review of the historical record is instructive. When the State constitution was revised in 1851, the delegates considered an amendment to prohibit the establishment ‘at the public charge, [of] any schools or institutions of learning other than district or township schools,’ but did not adopt it … Then, shortly after the adoption of the 1851 Indiana Constitution, the General Assembly created the Indiana public school system, but did not reverse the longstanding policy of financing private schools … In fact, the School Law of 1855 permitted cities and town to ‘recognize any school, seminary, or other institution of learning, which has been or may be erected by private enterprise, as a part of their system’ … Yet, such action would not ‘supersede the common schools established under the authority of this State and supported by the public funds.’

That kind of argument reached across party lines not long ago. In 1977, Democratic Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan and Republican Bob Packwood jointly addressed The New York Times after the paper editorially opposed the tuition tax credit measure the pair had proposed and for which they had gained bipartisan support. In their letter to the Times, Moynihan and Packwood wrote:

We seek to reduce the artificial distinction between ‘public’ and ‘private’ schools and colleges, if not in governance then at least in the minds of prospective students and their families. Not until the mid-19th century did that distinction even come into existence. For many years, funds raised through public means were channeled directly into schools and colleges administered under private auspices … We believe that the tuition tax credit approach as represented by our bill provides simple, direct and effective financial aid to students of all levels of education without the further expansion of an already massive bureaucracy.

Moynihan’s tone grew more aggressive the following year when the New York Democrat wrote in Phi Delta Kappan:

The issue is not the future of the public schools. They now enroll more than 90% of all primary and secondary students and more than 75% of all postsecondary students. Although they do not lack for problems, their future is secure and is not the least threatened by our proposal …

… Far the more important policy question before the Senate is whether nonpublic schools are to have a future or whether the national government is to aid and abet those who would not mind in the least if they were to shut down entirely … Let there be no mistake about this either: In the field of education, the public sector is slowly but steadily vanquishing the private.

Thirty-three years separate Keele’s ruling and Moynihan’s argument, and there are too few Democratic leaders today who would take up the senator’s old cause of “Diversity. Pluralism. Variety” in public education.  Whatever the outcome in Indiana, here’s hoping this look in history can help to change that political dynamic.

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BY Adam Emerson

Editor of redefinED, policy and communications guru for Florida education nonprofit


Matthew Ladner


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