Public education system founded in bigotry

October 06, 1997|By Libby Sternberg

IN 1839, an angry crowd attacked a Baltimore Carmelite convent for three days.

They had been roused to action by the preaching and publications of Robert Breckenridge and Andrew B. Cross, both virulent anti-Catholics whose writings on the topic read like hysterical conspiracy theories and outlandish fantasies.

While anti-Catholicism, like racism and anti-Semitism, is a well-known part of this country's history, less is known about how such bigoted views were tied to the enactment of laws that affect every American today.

In addition to being a minister and an active anti-Catholic agitator, Breckenridge's other labors earned him a more complimentary title.

He is known as the "Father of Public Education in Kentucky."


Robert Breckenridge is a symbol of both the noble and ignoble passions that led to our current system of public education.

Thanks to Breckenridge and his ilk, America now has an elementary and secondary education system where the public schools can receive public funds and where school choice is viewed by many as a radical new idea.

It wasn't always that way.

Before the 1800s, America's schools were diverse and independent, funded through a variety of methods including tuition and taxpayer support.

Most schools were religiously affiliated. In the early and mid 1800s, however, reformers and policy makers began to understand the importance of education to the future of a democracy.

A movement began to ensure that all free children had access to a free education.

This was achieved through the enactment of compulsory education (or truancy) laws and compulsory financing through school taxes.

But many education policy makers were as anti-Catholic as Breckenridge.

A surge of mostly Catholic immigrants in the mid-1800s led to a fearful nativist movement that sought to protect what were believed to be true American values from the new arrivals who were viewed as "agents of the Pope."

Protestant values

These values included religion and hence, early public schools were filled with Bible reading, hymn singing, and praying. The King James version was used, not the Catholic Douay bible, and prayers and hymns were similarly Protestant.

Not surprisingly, Catholics sought refuge in their own schools.

It is a great irony of education history that the very thing that the reformers sought to stamp out -- Catholic ideas -- grew and thrived in adversity. Today, the majority of our nation's private schools are affiliated with the Catholic church.

Nonetheless, education policy-makers sought to cut Catholics off at the pass by enacting laws that required schools to receive a seal of approval from a public board before being able to receive public funds.

Needless to say, Catholic schools did not pass muster. Neither did other denominational schools, mostly Lutheran ones.

Thus, the term "non-sectarian school" was used to define the new multi-denominational public schools.

The original separation of public funds from denominational church schools had nothing to do with constitutional issues and everything to do with a desire to fund only those schools that "conformed" to the policy-makers' view of what Americans should think, and how they should act and pray.

Today, school-choice advocates seek to undo some of the harm perpetrated by those misguided reformers of Breckenridge's stripe.

Where the goal of earlier reformers simply was to ensure equal access to education, 20th century reformers know that equal access to quality must be the driving force.

With failing schools in inner cities turning out students who have been deprived of a decent education, school choice advocates argue it is time to revisit the past, learn from our mistakes and build a new educational future.


That future should include diversity.

Not every child thrives in every educational environment. One-size-fits-all is not the answer to how to provide educational excellence.

At the college and university level, public and private schools co-exist and compete for students in a healthy atmosphere that promotes excellence.

Vouchers, in the form of publicly-funded grants, loans, and schol arships, can be used at both public and private colleges.

Even religiously-affiliated colleges, where students can study theology or learn to be a minister, can receive public funds.

Higher education, because of its more powerful leaders, was held harmless during the unsavory days when public funds were cut off from schools at the lower levels of education.

The history of public education and its entanglement with the xenophobic nativist movement begs several important questions.

What if Robert Breckenridge and his like-minded education leaders had only been interested in education and not in forwarding an anti-Catholic agenda?


Would we have, instead of our current monopolistic system of elementary and secondary education, a more diverse and higher quality system, akin to our public and private universities?

A growing number of Americans, according to recent public opinion polls, want to find the answers to these questions.

At a recent school-choice organizers conference in Washington, representatives of every political stripe and background came together to share ideas on how to reach a common goal.

Their aim is to ensure that each child has access to the educational environment most appropriate for his or her needs without fear of financial penalty.

If Robert Breckenridge had not been distracted by his darker motives, perhaps it would have been his only goal as well.

Libby Sternberg is president of Vermonters for Educational Choice Inc.

Pub Date: 10/06/97

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