School Choice History

Member Group : David Kirkpatrick

One does not ordinarily think of Tom Paine when considering education. Not only a revolutionary and radical, in Part 2, Chapter 5 of The Rights of Man, he places himself squarely in the company of Adam Smith and Thomas Jefferson when he urged educating students by paying for their schooling through the parents
Margaret G. O’Donnell, in, The Educational Thought of the Classical Political Economists, said Paine "suggested that each pupil be supplied by the state with an educational allowance…for the expense of schooling for six years each…The children (through their parents) would be permitted to spend their school allowance in whatever school they found most desirable. This ‘voucher’ scheme would promote a healthy competition among schools since consumer choice would determine the success and profitability of an educational institution."

To Paine, "It is certain that if the children are provided for, the parents are relieved of consequence, because it is from the expenxe of bringing up children that their poverty arises…the mode of relief or distribution…is to pay as a remission of taxes to every poor family…for every child under fourteen years of age; enjoining the parents of such children to send them to school, to learn reading, writing, and common arithmetic; the ministers of every parish, of every denomination, to certify jointly to an office, for that purpose, that this duty is performed."

Paine, an alleged "atheist," would give the clergy responsibility for oversight of education. But then, in 1792, most of the new states had a history from colonial days of established churches. There was no argument over the separation of church and state, a provision nowhere to be found in the U.S. Constitution.

That expression first appeared in a personal letter by Thomas Jefferson during his first term as president. And it did not become a major issue until after it was used by a Supreme Court Associate Justice in a brief which he wrote as part of the Court’s Everson decision in 1947.

Paine concluded that "By adopting this method, not only the poverty of the parents will be relieved, but ignorance will be banished from the rising generation…Many a youth, with good natural genius…is prevented getting forward the whole of his life, from the want of a little common education when a boy."

This is similar to Horace Mann’s belief some 50 years later that there is an inverse relationship between schools and jails, the more there are of one the fewer there will be of the other.

Unfortunately it hasn’t worked out that way. While we do have more public schools and students than ever before, we also have more prisons, holding a record number of prisoners.

Paine observed that, "Public schools do not answer the general purpose of the poor…Education, to be useful to the poor, should be on the spot; and the best method, I believe, to accomplish this, is to enable the parents to pay the expence themselves. There are always persons of both sexes to be found in every village, especially when growing into years, capable of such an undertaking. (What? No certification!!!-ed.)..there are often distressed clergymen’s widows to whom such an income would be acceptable. Whatever is given on this account to children answers two purposes, to them it is an education, to those who educate them it is a livelihood.

"…there will still be a number of families, though not properly of the class of the poor, yet find it difficult to give education to their children; and such children, under such a case, would be in a worse condition than if their parents were actually poor. A nation under a well regulated government, should permit none to remain uninstructed. It is monarchical and aristocratical government only that requires ignorance for its support.

It is easily seen, that the poor are generally composed of large families of children, and of people past their labor. If these two classes are provided for, the remedy will so far reach to the full extent of the case that what remains will be incidental.
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