Why do governments fund education?
What are your initial reactions to this week’s question? Why do you think governments consider education to be such a high priority?
So my first reaction was to try to think back on what I learned about the origins of government-funded education in America. I couldn’t remember much, and so I sought out a history of public education. It turns out that the main impetus for funding education, through the 19th century, was to teach young people how to read and interpret the bible, specifically the protestant bible. Education was mainly entrusted to the parents, with small schools and school districts being opened and run by parents, either with them teaching, or being in charge of hiring teachers and directing curriculum. However, in the late 19th century, with the rise of industry, and parents being increasingly out of the home for long hours, it was decided that parents were not necessarily fit to raise their children into literate and competent adults, and school became compulsory. The compulsory school movement was also fueled by concerns about child labor. The idea of schools raising children to be members of society, and not just pious citizens, became the main thrust of education (although funding for religious education wasn’t deemed unconstitutional until the mid-20th century). By the mid 1900s, education became part of the Cold War, with the goal of educating children to be scientists who could compete with Soviet scientists.
As we can see from this brief history (which obviously does not go all the way to the present), the idea of funding education in America is seen as a way to fix a variety of social and political ills. Whether it was ungodly behavior in the 17th and 18th centuries, child labor in the 19th century, or drug use and gang violence in the 1980s and 90s, our government has had specific goals to address by funding education. Currently, policy makers seem most concerned with (a) equality of educational opportunities, (b) competing in a global field of education innovations, and (c) teaching skills for students to succeed in an increasingly information- and technology- based society, and preparing students for corporate life.
Unfortunately, the first two goals are acutely hindered by many of the initiatives that have taken place in the past 20 years, with increased testing, and school shut-downs when performance is deemed unacceptable. Though we live in ever-increasingly diverse communities, the way in which government regulates education is based on an assumption that all students should fit into a specific mold (generally white and middle class). Additionally, school funding here fails to provide the tools students need to meet these goals in all communities — schools in more affluent areas are able to receive more through community participation, but unfortunately those in less affluent areas do not have the funds to contribute to schools, however much they might value their children’s education.