There’s nothing new under the Sun

Over the holiday break, and inspired by the movie Lincoln, I read an excellent biography of the well-known Pennsylvania politician Thaddeus Stevens (1792-1868), written by the late Hans Trefousse.

Stevens is best-known as an abolitionist leader and advocate for black civil rights in the U.S. House of Representatives.  But he gained an earlier reputation as an effective advocate for universal free public education in the state of Pennsylvania.

In 1834, the state of Pennsylvania had adopted a system of free, universal “common schools”, to replace the previous system under which everyone paid tuition except for children from poor families.  There was widespread opposition to this new 1834 law. In the 1835 state legislative session, the state Senate voted to repeal the 1834 law, and revert to the previous system of free schools only for “paupers”.  This repeal looked likely to pass the state House.

But on April 11, 1835, state representative Thaddeus Stevens gave a two hour speech against the repeal of universal free common schools. This speech was credited by many contemporary observers with having turned the tide in the public debate, and the existing education bill was maintained (Trefousse, pp. 39-40).  Stevens for the rest of his life preserved a copy of the state education bill printed on silk (Trefousse, p. 40).

In reading this speech, it is startling how today’s debates over universal preschool simply repeat the old debates over universal free common schools. The issues are very similar.  Here are some quotations from this 1835 speech of Thaddeus Stevens.

Why is education a public concern:

“If education is of admitted importance to the people under all forms of government, and of unquestioned necessity when they govern themselves, it follows of course that its cultivation and diffusion is a matter of public concern, and a duty which every government owes to its people… If an elective republic is to endure for any great length of time, every elector must have sufficient information, not only to accumulate wealth and take care of his pecuniary concerns, but to direct wisely the Legislature, the Ambassadors, and the Executive of the nation…If, then, the permanency of our government depends upon such knowledge, it is the duty of government to see that the means of information be diffused to every citizen. This is a sufficient answer to those who deem education a private and not a public duty – who argue that they are willing to educate their own children, but not their neighbor’s children.”

Why it is a mistake to target public subsidies only on children from poor families:

“The amendment which is now proposed…is, in my opinion, of a most hateful and degrading character. It proposes that…the names of those who have the misfortune to be poor men’s children shall be forever preserved, as a distinct class, in the archives of the county. The teacher, too, is to keep in his school a pauper book, and register the names and attendance of poor scholars; thus pointing out and recording their poverty in the midst of their companions. Sir, hereditary distinctions of rank are sufficiently odious, but that which is founded on poverty is infinitely more so. Such a law should be entitled, “An act for branding and marking the poor, so that they may be known from the rich and proud.”

Why it makes as much sense to finance education to reduce crime as to finance the criminal justice system:

“Many complain of the school tax…because it is for the benefit of others and not themselves. This is a mistake. It is for their own benefit, inasmuch as it perpetuates the government and ensures the due administration of the laws under which they live, and by which their lives and property are protected. Why do they not urge the same objection against all other taxes? The industrious, thrifty, rich farmer pays a heavy county tax to support criminal courts, build jails, and pay sheriffs and jail-keepers, and yet probably he never has had and never will have any direct personal use for either. He never gets the worth of his money by being tried for a crime before the court, allowed the privilege of the jail on conviction, or receiving an equivalent from the sheriff or his hangmen officers. He cheerfully pays the tax which is necessary to support and punish convicts, but loudly complains of that which goes to prevent his fellow-being from becoming a criminal, and to obviate the necessity of those humiliating institutions. “

Why children should not be made to suffer for the misfortunes or mistakes of their parents:

“This [universal free public education] law is often objected to because its benefits are shared by the children of the profligate spendthrift equally with those of the most industrious and economical habits. It ought to be remembered that the benefit is bestowed, not upon the erring parents, but the innocent children. Carry out this objection, and you punish children for the crimes or misfortunes of their parents.“

Why higher education rests on the skills provided by earlier education:

“Why has [Pennsylvania], in proportion to her population, scarcely one-third as many collegiate students as…New England? The answer is obvious: She has no free schools. Until she shall have, you may in vain endow college after college; they will never be filled, or filled only by students from other States. In New England free schools plant the seeds and the desire of knowledge in every mind, without regard to the wealth of the parent or the texture of the pupil’s garments. When the seed, thus universally sown, happens to fall on fertile soil, it springs up and is fostered by a generous public, until it produces its glorious fruit. “

Why education helps develop talents among all that then benefit us all:

“If is no uncommon occurrence to see the poor man’s son, thus encouraged by wise legislation, far outstrip and bear off the laurels from the less industrious heirs of wealth. Some of the ablest men of the present and past days never could have been educated except for that benevolent system. Not to mention any of the living, it is well known that the architect of an immortal name [Benjamin Franklin], who “plucked the lightnings from heaven, and the scepter from tyrants,” was the child of free schools.”

Why reform is hard:

“But we are told that this law is unpopular…Has it not always been so with every new reform…? Old habits and old prejudices are hard to be removed from the mind. Every new improvement which has been gradually leading man from the savage through the civilized up to a highly cultivated state, has required the most strenuous and often perilous exertions of the wise and the good.”

Why we need to look beyond the short-term:

“I trust that when we come to act on this question, we shall take lofty ground – look beyond the narrow space which now circumscribes our vision – beyond the passing, fleeting point of time on which we stand – and so cast our votes that the blessing of education shall be conferred on every son of Pennsylvania…so that he may be prepared to …lay on earth a …solid foundation for that enduring knowledge which goes on increasing through…eternity.”

The fight for early childhood education should be seen as a continuation of the long-term struggle for broadening and intensifying the public benefits of education.

About timbartik

Tim Bartik is a senior economist at the Upjohn Institute for Employment Research, a non-profit and non-partisan research organization in Kalamazoo, Michigan. His research specializes in state and local economic development policies and local labor markets.
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