Education for the Common Good

Why should taxpayers support the education of other people’s children? In democracies, the answer is because these children’s lives (including workforce participation and social wellbeing) and political involvement (understanding democratic institutions, analyzing legislation, and voting) shape ours. Since the late-18th and early-19th centuries, governments have rested their case for public education here. It is not surprising that the imperative to expand the general public’s knowledge and know-how coincided with the expansion of the right to vote.

For instance, in 1833, Member of Parliament J.A. Roebuck referenced general wellbeing and the expansion of voting rights when he introduced England’s first national resolution for government funding for education:

I would first solicit the attention of the House to the more prominent benefits to be obtained by a general education of the people. Secondly, I would endeavour to show why the Government should itself supply this education [in addition to the religious institutions and factory owners that already did so]; and, lastly, I shall attempt to trace a rude outline of a plan by which every inhabitant of this empire might receive the instruction requisite for the well-being of society….

Roebuck went on to specify the social and political benefits of an educated populace, including the possibility of reasoned debate rather than “a stack-burning peasantry or sturdy pauper population,” and “a people industrious, honest, tolerant, and happy.” Furthermore, he argued, “The business of Government is not, and can no longer be, the affair of a few. The multitude—the hitherto inert and submissive multitude—are filled with a new spirit—their attention is intently directed towards the affairs of the State—they take an active part in their own social concern.”

Then-Governor Thomas Jefferson had made the same argument in 1779 when he proposed that Virginia enact the Bill for the More General Diffusion of Knowledge. Publicly funded education for all (white, male) children, he explained, would protect the new Republic from tyranny:

…certain forms of government are better calculated than others to protect individuals in the free exercise of their natural rights….yet experience hath shewn that those entrusted with power have, in time, and by slow operations, perverted it into tyranny; and it is believed that the most effectual means of preventing this would be, to illuminate, as far as practicable, the minds of the people at large…they may be enabled to know ambition under all its shapes, and prompt to exert their natural powers to defeat its purposes.

Publicly funded education, he argued further, would work against the aristocratic principle and enable “those persons, whom nature hath endowed with genius and virtue” to be “rendered by liberal education worthy to receive, and able to guard the sacred deposit of the rights and liberties of their fellow citizens, and that they should be called to that charge without regard to wealth, birth or other accidental condition or circumstance” [italics added].

From the Early Republic until the present day, Americans have never decided that education is merely a private good. Our public documents, speeches, legal cases, and landmark reports are shot through with the opposite belief: education serves a common purpose. For example, in Brown v. Board of Education (1954), the Supreme Court reiterated education’s common purpose when it declared de jure segregation unconstitutional:

Education is perhaps the most important function of state and local governments. . . . It is the very foundation of good citizenship [and] the principal instrument in awakening the child to cultural values, in preparing him for later professional training, and in helping him to adjust normally to his environment.

Thirty years later, the federal government’s National Commission on Excellence in Education (“A Nation at Risk”) decried the effect of America’s inadequate education on the creation of a common, democratic culture: “A high level of shared education is essential to a free, democratic society and to the fostering of a common culture, especially in a country that prides itself on pluralism and individual freedom.”

And in 2012, the Council on Foreign Relations’ task force on education opined that, “Without a wide base of educated and capable citizens…[our] strengths will fade, and the United States will lose its leading standing in the world.” It is hard to imagine a leader from Left or Right who would disagree that we “cannot be two countries–one educated and one not, one employable and one not.”

Even the rulings and regulations on private schools reference their importance to the common good. In the second time in its history that the U.S. Supreme Court considered a state’s education laws (Piece v. Society of Sisters, 1925), for instance, the Court upheld the right of Catholic schools to exist against Oregon’s anti-Catholic legislation, in widely quoted terms:

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.

But the Court also reinforced, in the same breath, the public’s interest in the quality and content of private schools:

No question is raised concerning the power of the State reasonably to regulate all schools, to inspect, supervise and examine them, their teachers and pupils; to require that all children of proper age attend some school, that teachers shall be of good moral character and patriotic disposition, that certain studies plainly essential to good citizenship must be taught, and that nothing be taught which is manifestly inimical to the public welfare.

Or fifty years later, in Runyon v McClary (1976), the Court ruled that the racially-discriminatory admissions policy of a private school in Virginia violated federal laws that hearkened back to the Civil Rights Act of 1866, which “prohibits racial discrimination in the making and enforcing of private contracts.” Addressing the plaintiff’s argument from First-Amendment rights, the Court held in contrast that the federal non-discrimination laws “do…not violate constitutionally protected rights of free association and privacy, or a parent’s right to direct the education of his children.” The Court argued finally that:

While parents have a constitutional right to send their children to private schools and to select private schools that offer specialized instruction, they have no constitutional right to provide their children with private school education unfettered by reasonable government regulation.

The Court used a similar logic to strike down racial discrimination in other private-school education cases (see here and here). The point was the same: the country’s schools matter to all of us. They are our business, as it were.

State governments also enforce the common purpose of education, whether that education be delivered by district, charter, or private schools. New York State, for example, requires private schools to comply with numerous guidelines and instructional competencies – a matter that has generated failure-to-comply lawsuits against both the state and the Hasidic community.

In the meantime, research has repeatedly affirmed the contribution that private schools make to the common good. Private schools have an independent, positive effect upon their students’ lives. They often narrow academic achievement gaps, create social capital, and foster democratic behavior – including adult voluntary activity. Such private-school outcomes are persuasive and have led countries around the world to expand access to them. [1]

The principle of education for the common good is more important now than ever, as school systems across the United States become more plural through charter schools, tax credits, vouchers, and education savings accounts. I have argued elsewhere that educational pluralism, in which the State funds and regulates but does not exclusively deliver education, sits more readily with democratic principles than does the uniform, district-delivered model. But pluralism incorporates, in fact relies upon, the assumption that funding radically diverse schools does not abrogate the mission of public education to promote the common good. The majority of democracies fulfill this purpose both by underwriting schools that comport with their citizens’ philosophical, religious, and pedagogical beliefs – whether Catholic, Calvinist, socialist, Jewish, or Montessori – and also by requiring that those schools deliver similar curricular content, albeit through their own, distinctive lenses. In many cases, these systems require the students of their diverse schools to sit a common exam that indicates whether, and to what extent, their schools have fulfilled their part of the democratic compact. Alberta, Canada, is a case in point. The province funds a mosaic of schools, including Catholic, Jewish, Protestant, secular, Inuit, and even home schools. It also requires each child (even the homeschooled child) to learn the same academic information and to sit the same, provincial exams. The Netherlands, which funds 36 different types of schools, does the same.

What might this look like in the United States? Policymakers have the difficult responsibility of honoring distinctive school cultures while ensuring an appropriate level of academic quality – one educational translation of the common good. It is unlikely that a state-required, common curriculum with set texts and facts that students had to know, would succeed politically or pedagogically in this country. Scholars as diverse as Diane Ravitch and E.D. Hirsch have argued persuasively that teacher preparation turned from academic content to knowledge-neutral skills – a hundred years ago. A coherent curriculum courts controversy over what, exactly, should be included. And deference to local control and private-school autonomy make it extremely difficult to contemplate the prescription of academic knowledge that must be imparted by all schools that are funded directly (districts and charters) or indirectly (via tax credits, vouchers, and ESAs).

States could, however, move closer to the international norm by specifying curricular frameworks, as Massachusetts does, or advancing widespread use of high-quality instructional materials, as Louisiana has achieved. Better still, they could help schools build their students’ knowledge domains by the thoughtful use of assessments and academic content, as my colleague David Steiner suggests. The benefits of mastering particular domains of history, engaging with specific texts chosen by teachers from a rich menu of options, and undertaking a systematic study of not only math and science, but also geography, religion, and philosophy, would be substantial. Low-income students stand to gain the most from sustained access to rigorous content knowledge (see here, here, and here). Teachers’ expertise and enjoyment would likely deepen. And the political discourse and civic experiences of the next generation might reflect a depth that skills alone cannot impart, but which knowledge shared and held in common, can begin to foster.

To be clear, the argument is not for an imposed, homogenizing curriculum. Different states, and different funded schools within those states, would frame the content knowledge according to their distinctive ethos and deliver it according to their preferred pedagogy. Requiring that students learn about (say) the ancient world, or study algebra and foreign languages, should not be construed as dictating the intellectual framework or pedagogical style in which that knowledge is imparted and understood. But the nation has a vital interest in its future citizens’ acquiring the knowledge and skills without which they will struggle to contribute to the commonweal.

Jefferson would have understood this. He was quite certain that a democratic education should include robust knowledge of history, politics, English literature, mathematics, and science, and build the capacities of skillful writing and public oratory. Benjamin Franklin, Benjamin Rush, and George Washington agreed with this intellectual scope. For them as for their counterparts in other countries, democratic norms require not only a pluralistic structure, but also a meaningful assurance of instructional quality. This longstanding and elsewhere-embraced view is at odds with that of many libertarians in the school-choice movement, for whom the State is always and everywhere to be resisted.

The State can, of course, oppress. As great a risk, however, is that, with all individual activities from our taste in music to our choice of school construed as private goods, our citizens neither notice (Jefferson’s concern) nor, as Tocqueville worried, even care.

— Ashley Berner

Ashley Berner is Deputy Director of the Johns Hopkins Institute for Education Policy, Assistant Professor of Education at the School of Education, and the author of Pluralism and American Public Education: No One Way to School (2017). Her teaching experience took place in a Jewish pre-school, an Episcopal secondary school, and an open university. She is a Senior Fellow at the Center for the Study of Law and Religion at Emory University Law School and holds degrees from Davidson College (Honors A.B.) and from Oxford University (M.Litt. and D.Phil. in Modern History).

[1] See David E. Campbell, “The Civic Implications of Canada’s Education System,” in Educating Citizens:, ed. Patrick Wolf et al. (Washington, DC: Brookings Institute, 2004), 186–220,

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