The Corner


No Escape from Progressive Education

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Hostility to private education is a longstanding characteristic of progressivism. In the late-19th and early-20th centuries, progressives sought to limit (and in some cases eliminate) parents’ right to educate their children as they saw fit.

They’re still at it.

Some background. In 1922, Oregon passed the Compulsory Education Act, which required almost all children between the ages of eight and 16 to attend public schools. Parents would be prohibited from sending their children to private or parochial schools. Although the anti-Catholic sentiment of many of the Act’s proponents is often highlighted, proponents also drew upon the progressive public-school tradition, which sought to dissolve class, ethnic, and creedal distinctions. An interesting master’s thesis on this topic by a Portland State University graduate student provides a number of primary sources from the campaign. To take an example of an advertisement in the Portland Oregonian supporting the Act:

The American public school is a democratic institution. It puts love of equality into the hearts of men. It breeds faith and confidence in them because mingling with all classes brings the kind of fellowship which makes national leadership a positive thing. To isolate the growing child and to deny him of his comradeship is a thrust at the very life of the nation. It breeds class distinction, the most demoralizing and deadly force which undermines the spirit of any great people.

An author in the Oregon Teachers Monthly wrote:

Shall all our children, up to, and including, the eighth grade, do this work on a common level of neighborliness; or shall they be divided into a number of selfish and exclusive clans? Shall those of one blood have no association with those of another blood? Shall those whose parents prefer a particular form of religion be taught that they must not be friends with those outside their circle?

Progressive arguments in favor of state-controlled education persist. Better that all be equally mediocre than only some excel. Last summer, Harvard Magazine published an article entitled “The Risks of Homeschooling,” in which Harvard law professor Elizabeth Bartholet advocated for a presumptive ban on homeschooling and said:

From the beginning of compulsory education in this country, we have thought of the government as having some right to educate children so that they become active, productive participants in the larger society . . . . It’s also important that children grow up exposed to community values, social values, democratic values, ideas about nondiscrimination and tolerance of other people’s viewpoints.

The belief that it’s the state, not parents, that has primary responsibility for the education and moral formation of children has endured in progressivism for more than a century (this has sometimes been accompanied by aversion, if not outright hostility, toward Catholic instruction).

The Society of the Sisters of the Holy Names of Jesus and Mary was a Catholic religious order that ran schools and orphanages in Oregon. The Society, along with the Hill Military Academy, challenged the Compulsory Education Act, an Act that would have necessitated closing their schools.

In a unanimous decision, the Supreme Court held that the Compulsory Education Act infringed on the right of parents to control the upbringing and education of their children. “The fundamental theory of liberty upon which all governments in this Union repose excludes any general power of the state to standardize its children by forcing them to accept instruction from public teachers only. The child is not the mere creature of the state; those who nurture him and direct his destiny have the right, coupled with the high duty, to recognize and prepare him for additional obligations.” Pierce v. Society of the Sisters of the Holy Names of Jesus and Mary, 268 U.S. 510 (1925) (emphasis added).

This brings us to Oregon today. Nearly a century after losing in Society of Sisters, Oregon is trying to undermine private education by a new means. Oregonians for Liberty in Education notes that Oregon Department of Education policy currently states, “Private schools do not have to register with the State of Oregon, unless they are contracting with [a] public school district for services.”

That may change. Oregon Senate Bill 223 would require private schools to register and receive approval from the state every year. This would apply to any “educational program” from pre-kindergarten to grade twelve. Schools would have to receive state approval for, at a minimum, the qualifications of their teachers, their facility, their curriculum, and the time spent teaching each subject. The legislation would also establish an advisory committee that would have the power to place additional requirements on private schools.

This, at first glance, may seem innocuous. What harm can it cause? However, having the state second-guessing the curriculum and hiring practices of private schools limits the independence of those schools. What if the state decides that a private school’s curriculum isn’t “sound and comprehensive” and fails to “emphasize the establishment of high practical standards” because the private school doesn’t use the 1619 Project in its curriculum? What if a religious school teaches that there are only two sexes, male and female? Would Oregon’s advisory committee determine that this isn’t “sound and comprehensive”? Or that it runs afoul of antidiscrimination provisions in Oregon, since the advisory committee can decide to make private schools subject to more laws governing public schools than are listed in the bill?

The bill uses a substantial stick to force private schools to comply. The bill provides that unregistered private schools may not participate in interscholastic activities. That means unregistered private schools wouldn’t be able to participate in athletic leagues, music festivals, debate competitions, and so on. This might seem minor to some — who cares if private schools can’t participate in high-school football or the state track championships? But being barred from participating in interscholastic activities will make it more difficult for students at those schools to be accepted into colleges that consider extracurricular activities and achievements as essential criteria for admission.

What prompted this bill? The text of the bill itself provides no rationale. Oregonians for Liberty in Education note that there was little discussion of private schools at the Senate Committee for Education’s fall meeting. It seems unlikely there’s an outcry from private school parents about lack of standards at their private schools. The beauty of private school is that if the school isn’t meeting your expectations, you can leave.

There’s no need for this legislation. It will turn private schools into Public-School Lite, drive up tuition due to the cost of complying with the new mandates, increase progressive indoctrination, and likely lead to government impingement on religious and parental rights.

Other than that, it’s a fine idea.


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