The coronavirus pandemic poses an existential threat to American education. As schools decide whether classrooms will take shape online or in person this fall, some parents are not taking any chances. The struggles of distance learning experiences when the virus hit this spring has incentivized wealthy Americans to use their vast resources to educate their children privately in small “pandemic pods” or expensive private schools. But there is a serious cost to this decision: the transition to distance learning already exposed deep inequality in education, and this move will only exacerbate it.
The advent of pandemic pods and more families opting out of public schools may set American education back generations because it will deprive schools of funding at a time when it is most needed. It also resurrects the educational ideals and practices of European aristocrats and their early American admirers, reminding us how private education sustains social inequality, as it was designed to do.
During the 17th and 18th centuries, English aristocrats usually hired tutors for their kids, before sending them off to elite boarding schools and universities with other aristocrats. There were no public schools that served the whole community because education itself was seen as an elite pursuit. Only those who were destined by birth to rule needed an education. Everyone else could safely remain uneducated.
Some British colonists challenged this view of education and the aristocratic mentality it upheld. Beginning in its earliest years, Massachusetts required towns to maintain tax-supported elementary schools. At first, these existed to teach Puritan boys and girls to read the Bible. By the American Revolution, they were the foundation of New England’s system of township democracy, which gave ordinary white men considerable political power. The state’s 1780 constitution mandated that the system continue because “Wisdom and knowledge … diffused generally among the body of the people” was “necessary for the preservation of their rights and liberties.”
Belief in public education as an antidote to aristocracy flourished in revolutionary America. Four other state constitutions adopted similar provisions to Massachusetts, though none was immediately effective. So, too, did the federal government. Congress required townships in the Northwestern territories — which were under its control — to set aside land to fund public education. That accessible education was necessary to undercut aristocracy and empower the white citizenry became a cliche. Yet very few of these plans took effect.