By William L. Phillis
Ohio Coalition for Equity & Adequacy of School Funding

The public common school: Will it survive the attacks from American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), Fordham Institute, the Waltons, Kochs, Betsy DeVos, and profiteers, and the U.S. Supreme Court’s bombardment of the wall of separation of church and state?

The public common school, as we know it, was a logical response to the conviction of our nation’s early leaders that democracy, and thus the preservation of the republic, depended on an enlightened and participatory citizenry.

In the early years, political leaders, such as Thomas Jefferson, championed the idea of universal, free public education. A few decades later, Horace Mann and others such as Samuel Lewis, Ohio’s first superintendent of Common Schools (1837-40), aggressively advocated for the common school system.

The movement had a lot of opponents. A segment of Protestants resisted the common school as a threat to their influence over youth. The Catholic hierarchy did not support the common school because it was unconnected with the Catholic faith. Additionally, many folks resented the idea of being taxed for the education of the children of other people.

In spite of substantial opposition, the common school system advanced throughout the nation. Historically, over 90% of the youth of America have been educated in the common school system. It became entrenched in the political and social fabric of the nation. The Constitution of each state has one or more provisions that require the state to maintain a public common school system.

Until recent decades, courts had shored up the wall of separation of church and state and thus, had denied tax funds to parochial schools. Likewise, legislative bodies had not authorized the use of tax money for charter schools.

The forces against the common school in the current era are much greater and more organized than ever. The courts have eroded the “wall of separation” to the point that state governments, in the near future, may be forced to support parochial schools on the same basis as the common system.

The charter industry has attracted powerful and wealthy support forces that dominate the education policy agenda of the federal government and of most states. Federal and state officials, as recipients of charter and voucher campaign cash, typically do the bidding of the school choice lobby.

Will the common school system, as we know it, be able to garner the support to overcome its detractors? This is a most consequential question. The implications are mindboggling. A flourishing common school system in the future will give assurance of:

• Democracy over oligarchy;
• Common good over tribalism; and
• The American dream over a caste system.

Will citizens care enough to preserve the great institution of the common school?

Politicians of all political persuasions, union officials and business leaders must contemplate the long-term consequences of the erosion of the public common school system. Citizens must become energized in support; otherwise, the privatizers will continue to drain resources, fiscal and human, to the point that the common school will become a relic of history.

Citizens must act. Political leaders seem incapable to preserve the time-honored system.