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Public vs. Private: The Early History of School Choice in America

reviewed by Charisse Gulosino

coverTitle: Public vs. Private: The Early History of School Choice in America
Author(s): Robert N. Gross
Publisher: Oxford University Press, Oxford
ISBN: 0190644575, Pages: 224, Year: 2018
Search for book at Amazon.com

The current debate over the negative impacts of school choice on public schools has parallels to late 19th century efforts by Protestant public school advocates to attenuate the rapid expansion of Catholic schools, whose growth was threatening the monopoly of the common school system. Common schooling was the default system for America’s students, following privately run or tuition-dependent schools, for much of the 18th and early 19th century. By the late 19th century, Catholic schools were growing rapidly with the influx of Catholic immigrants from Southern and Eastern Europe, and their establishment was an alternative to the Protestant education that dominated the nation’s public schools. In Public vs. Private: The Early History of School Choice in America, Robert Gross depicts this competition between the public school system and Catholic schools as a precursor for much of the history of the blurring of the line between public and private education in the U.S. through public regulations at the state and local levels.

In Chapter One, Gross carefully weaves together descriptions of the educational, political, and intellectual groups that advanced competing and antagonistic agendas about government or public ownership, educational competition, and universal public education. Specifically, he describes how private, tuition-based schools that supported laissez-faire capitalism saw their influence waning in the late 19th century with the rise of the Whig party and the early common school reformers (i.e., Horace Mann, Charles Sumner) who advocated for a more interventionist and centralized approach to social, economic and educational policies. A wide range of critics of market theory emerged in the latter part of the 19th century, including the American Economic Association (AEA), founded in 1885. This new organization contained a diversity of powerful figures (e.g., Richard Ely, William Graham Sumner, Edmund James, Henry Carter Adams) who were able to band together to form the intellectual roots of American economic reform in the Progressive Era, which entailed private economic freedom with state regulation and social protections, and the maintenance of public goods such as publicly governed, tax-supported schools.

Gross describes the period between the 1850s and 1870s as a time of great optimism for state systems of common schools that were expected to dominate and monopolize education. The emerging group of liberal Protestants and economists such as John Bates Clark and Richard Ely made frequent comparisons between public schools and other public utilities (sanitation, water, electricity, and transportation) characterized by non-competition and natural monopoly. The parallel between the ideology of common school reformers who promoted state supervision and tax support for public schools and those of progressive economists who saw a compelling case for promoting government intervention with public goods ultimately trickled into the discourse of public school officials about schools. Public authorities used economic arguments to suggest that parochial schools were inefficient and that education itself was a “natural monopoly” best left to government like other public utilities. The convergence of these intellectual forces led to conflict between public school officials and Catholic schools at the end of 19th century, a period in which competitive pressures from the massive expansion of the parochial school system were being felt throughout urban America.

Chapter Two discusses at length the explosion of Roman Catholic parochial schools driven by waves of Catholic immigrants and the need to preserve their linguistic, cultural, and religious heritage from widespread nativism and Protestant indoctrination in the public schools. Concerns surrounding denominational education and declining public school enrollments in urban areas solidified anti-Catholic sentiments at the local level and on the national stage, culminating in several enacted provisions in state constitutions known as a “Blaine amendments” that prohibited direct allocation of taxpayer dollars to Catholic and other sectarian schools. Despite unrelenting political challenges on many fronts, Catholic parochial schools continued to expand in urban, working-class enclaves, fulfilling the demands of immigrant parents for religious education, a Catholic approach to Scripture, preservation of the mother tongue, and “teaching about the history, culture, and traditions of the mother country” (p. 41). Low teacher wages, lay volunteers, and generally low-budget operations enabled parochial schools to compete with their public school counterparts and remain attractive to working-class Catholic families.

The remaining chapters of the book explore how hostility toward parochial education ebbed and flowed as Catholic schools were seen as helping to reduce the tax burden and alleviating overcrowding in public schools. Public regulations and adversary politics aimed at stifling parochial expansion were tempered by a recognition of the realities of the constraints on school finance, unimpeded growth in Catholic enrollment, and the rising influence of Catholic voting power. These political and fiscal realities helped to advance the notion of the public benefit of private schools. For their part, Catholic school officials welcomed minimal regulations governing the operation of schools in exchange for financial subsidies, especially property tax exemptions.

The final chapter examines in varying detail the major court cases from the 19th century that have far-reaching implications for government involvement in private enterprises. Many of these Supreme Court cases involved private schools, the most notable being the Pierce v. Society of Sisters of the Holy Names of Jesus and Mary, in which the U.S. Supreme Court ruled unconstitutional an Oregon law making public school attendance mandatory, thereby upholding the right of private schools to exist and for parents to exercise their child's school choice options. These court decisions upheld the private schools’ legitimacy to co-exist with public schools, but also granted states the power and flexibility to monitor compliance with relevant laws, policies, and regulations.

Gross presents the history of school choice through the lens of the American regulatory state, drawing connections between private schools and other industries and examining the relationship between private enterprises and the state. States have relied on the private sector as the key driver of the market economy, but have also set regulatory policy in support of productive efficiency, welfare of citizens, and quality improvement. Thus, the rise of the regulatory state in the late 19th and early 20th century has important implications for the history of school choice. First, the emergence of the regulatory state could be seen as a further extension of the powers of the state in terms of standardization, educational measurement, accreditation, centralized administration, and reporting requirements. Second, the extensiveness of state regulation does not merely constitute a blurring of public and private boundaries in education, but also has wider implications for educational competition, given that this implies a tightly regulated but vibrant educational marketplace. Third, federal court decisions in state educational policy illustrate how the Supreme Court has managed conflicts between public and private enterprise, setting the precedent for school choice policies and regulations as they exist today.

Robert Gross’s new book reminds us why we should see the ongoing debate over school choice through the long history of government regulation in the marketplace. There are striking parallels in public policy debates on school choice between our time and the late 19th and early 20th century, such as: What types of standards should charter schools and private school vouchers be held to? How should we measure their success or failure? How much should they be funded? What kind of curriculum should be taught? What accountability mechanisms should be in place? The history of school choice suggests that such perennial questions are indicative of a competitive education marketplace that is dynamic and that will continue to adapt to its regulatory environment. If history is any indication, government funding, regulation, and oversight of alternative schooling will continue to blur the boundaries between the public and private sectors as well as uphold the nation's commitment to public school students and their public schools.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, 2018, p. -
http://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 22543, Date Accessed: 11/20/2018 11:52:42 PM

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