The first step in understanding the state of education today is to review how government came to be the dominant force behind schooling in the United States. From the outset of the first settlements in the New World, Americans founded and successfully maintained a de-centralized network of schools up through the 1850s. Then, beginning in New England, a wave of reform swept across the country which soon saw states quickly abandoning the original American model of de-centralized, private education in favor of government-funded and operated schools.

This reform movement not only altered the direction and control of elementary and secondary education in the United States, it contradicted many of the principles Americans had fought for less than a century earlier:

  • A country founded in objection to central governmental authority allowed for bureaucratic management of its schools.

  • A country synonymous with "free enterprise" and distrust of legally protected monopolies built a government monopoly in schooling.

  • A country that stretched the exercise of individual choice to its practical limits in nearly every sphere of life severely limited the exercise of choice in schooling, assigning the responsibility for education to discretion of government authorities.

The system of K-12 government education that exists to this day clashes with the political, economic, social, and cultural traditions of the United States to an extent unparalleled by any other institution in American society. This fact once prompted former American Federation of Teachers President Albert Shanker to observe, "It's time to admit that public education operates like a planned economy, a bureaucratic system in which everybody's role is spelled out in advance and there are few incentives for innovation and productivity. It's no surprise that our school system doesn't improve: It more resembles the communist economy than our own market economy."1

Despite these stark contradictions, many Americans nevertheless believe that government schooling is inseparable from the existence of a free country and that without government education, democracy itself would be threatened. Yet for the first 150 years of America's settlement and the first 50 to 75 years of the nation's existence, government schooling as it is known today did not exist.

Today, few people ask how Americans, without the help of government education, came to tame an unsettled continent and eventually establish the freest nation in history. The Founding Fathers were clearly educated men, and they certainly believed that to remain free, America must always have an educated citizenry. However, an educated citizenry does not depend on, nor require, that government provide or operate schools. A brief review of American education prior to the 1850s will illustrate this point.