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David Kirkpatrick

Thomas Jefferson and School Choice

by David W. Kirkpatrick,
Senior Education Fellow, US Freedom Foundation

This is the fifth essay reviewing original sources of today's educational
debate over direct funding of students rather than of the institutions they
attend. The first four all drew upon Adam Smith's 'The Wealth of Nations,
" 1776. A more surprising source was Thomas Jefferson, erroneously viewed
as an advocate of public schools.. This is largely based on his
observation that "If a nation expects to be ignorant and free, in a state of
civilization, it expects what never was and never will be." This makes no mention of schools, public or otherwise. Of these Jefferson had his doubts. He
clarified his position when he wrote, "I hope our successors will turn their
attention to the advantages of education. I mean education on the broad scal
e, and not that of the petty academies."

Jefferson served for a time as Virginia's governor during the
Revolutionary War. It was not a highlight of his public career but he did propose legislation to provide a minimal educated citizenry. He included it in his "Notes on the State of Virginia," 1781, modified and expanded in 1782. What follows are excerpts of his plan.

"This bill proposes to lay off every county into small districts
of five or six miles square, called hundreds, and in each of them to
establish a school...These schools to be under a visitor, who is annually to
chuse the boy, of best genius in the school, of those whose parents are too
poor to give them further education, and to send him forward to one of the
grammar schools, of which twenty are proposed to be erected in different parts
of the country...Of the boys thus sent in any one year, trial is to be
made at the grammar schools one or two years, and the best genius of the whole
selected and continued six years, and the residue dismissed. By this
means twenty of the best geniuses will be raked from the rubbish annually,
(rubbish?? Is this Jefferson's view of the general public? -dwk ) ...At the end of six years instruction, one half are to be discontinued , from whom the
grammar schools will probably be supplied with future masters (teachers to
be drawn from school rejects? You won't hear that cited often by many of
today's teachers, or by those who view Jefferson as a great Democrat-dwk)..."
The general objects of this law are to provide an education adapted to the
years, to the capacity, and the condition of everyone, and directed to
their freedom and happiness."

His efforts to pass such legislation did not succeed but he did
not give up. In 1806, as president, he proposed amending the Constitution.
which he viewed as not giving the federal government any authority to be
involved in education or, more directly, in schooling . He once more
distinguished between private and public education, warning that "Education is here placed among the articles of public care, not that it would be proposed to take its ordinary branches out of the hands of private enterprise, which
manages so much better all the concerns to which it is equal.."

Again, his legislative proposals were not adopted, but his
interest continued and, ten years later, in 1816, as a private citizen, he
warned of the dangers of "public" education, writing "If it is believed that
these elementary schools will be better managed by the governor and council,
the commissioners of the literary fund, or any other general authority of
the government, than by the parents within each ward, it is a belief
against all experience.

But even private control should not be absolute. "To compel a man
to furnish contributions of money for the propagation of opinions which he
disbelieves and abhors, is sinful and tyrannical..."

But what if a parent refuses to have his child(ren) educated?
Jefferson viewed that is not very likely but, "It is better to tolerate the
rare instance of a parent's refusing to let his child be educated, than to
shock the common feelings by a forcible transportation and education of the
infant against the will of his father."

The school authority needs to meet the interests of the parent,
not the reverse

Jefferson would be shocked with today's public schools which are
what he warned against.

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