Four hundred years ago in late October 1620, the Mayflower was nearing the end of its journey across the Atlantic from Plymouth, England. Its passengers, the Pilgrims, hoped they would step off in Virginia. Instead, storms at sea blew the ship off course and after 66 days, it landed near what is now Provincetown on Cape Cod, Massachusetts.
Recently I watched an episode of Dan Snow’s History Hit television program. The comments of scholar Anna Scott caught my attention. Addressing the many forms of religious persecution that prompted the Pilgrims to set sail for freedom, one tidbit struck me as eerily similar to how public education is delivered today:
“Everybody had to go to church. It was the law. And you had to go to your local church. You weren’t allowed to go to a different church… That was called ‘gadding about.’ You could be fined for not going to church, going to the wrong church, or preaching in a church if you didn’t have permission to do that. You had to have the right kind of training and education to be able to speak to people about God.”
Courageous English people opposed to indoctrination by the official church held their own services secretly in their homes. Call that “home churching.”
In America today, government schooling works much like the state religion did in early 17th Century England. Children are assigned to government schools according to their zip codes. If parents want a better education elsewhere, they usually are penalized by paying twice — once in taxes for the school they’re trying to escape, and then again in tuition for the better private or sometimes even public school they prefer.
Like the state-allied churches of old England, today’s government schools demand your money even if they can’t get your kids. In fact, they make you pay not just when your kids are in school; you’re required to pay for your entire lifetime. And no amount of failure in government schooling, especially in our inner cities, gets you a refund or prevents the government from certifying who can teach.
Fortunately, the school choice and home school movements that began to grow in the 1980s have scored some successes. It’s easier than it was 40 years ago to opt for a better public school outside your district boundaries, or choose a charter school, or educate at home. But every inch of that progress was hard-fought, and entrenched interests like school bureaucrats and teacher unions are hell-bent on undoing it.
Back in 1600, English bishops took the same view of so-called “dissenters.” Hellfire and brimstone fell upon anyone who suggested, “Hey, let’s just give people their money back and let them choose where they want to go to church.”
Not until 1791 did church attendance become a matter of free choice in England. And nobody today would even think of restoring the system of 1600.
I suspect that eventually, Americans will view education in a similar fashion. They will insist on free choice and competing options. And when someone speaks up to say, “Can you believe we used to do education like James I of England did religion?” Americans will shake their heads in sadness and astonishment.
Lawrence W. Reed, a resident of Newnan, is president emeritus of the Foundation for Economic Education. His most recent book is “Was Jesus a Socialist?” He can be reached at email@example.com .