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Public education: a national birthright

by Bob Brown
| April 24, 2022 11:35 AM

Located directly between Glacier and Yellowstone National Parks, Montanans are proud to recognize our land of natural splendors as the nation’s “Last Best Place.”

Our pride is justified, even though it is not of our own making. An idea, however, that is a creation of the human mind and is of incalculable significance, is our historically unique system of public education.

Early in our development as a free people, Thomas Jefferson observed freedom and self-governance were dependent on a society that was educated and free thinking.

In keeping with Jefferson’s vision, Congress has repeatedly renewed national support for public education. Examples are the Land Grant Act, which has provided significant support for Montana State University as well as for the University of Montana and Montana Tech; the Enabling Act, which established Montana statehood, and in so doing set aside sections 16 and 36 of every township within the state boundaries for the support of common schools; and the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, which since 1965 has provided broad federal support for public education in all states. In Montana a coordinated system to ensure a foundation of support for all Montana public schools has been in effect for three-quarters of a century.

Without question there has been a firm and ongoing recognition in both our nation and our state that education is a human right. In no other part of the world has such a commitment been made.

Free public education was a major reason that millions of European immigrants fled a dead-end existence of ignorance and poverty in the old world to seek opportunity in the new world. The key to opportunity here was public education. The burgeoning American economy of the 1800s had an overwhelming need for literate workers. Those who could cipher and read the language were far more productive than those who could not. They would soon become not only the backbone of American labor, but also the entrepreneurial creators of countless private enterprises that have resulted in perpetual job creation, and thus a continual cycle of opportunity and prosperity.

This land of the American dream could not have happened without the universal opportunity for education. Most of the elite in the old world hated the concept of public education. Prosperity there was confined to the inheritors of wealth and power. The privileged classes alone enjoyed the opportunity for an education. If the masses were educated, they feared, the resulting questioning minds within the working class would pose a direct threat to the perpetual domination of the ruling class.

As an alternative to the competition for wealth and power that an educated workforce would inevitably create, the European gentry decided on the creation of a welfare state, the prototype of which occurred under the leadership of Germany’s “Iron Chancellor” Otto Von Bismarck. By providing for basic human needs at public expense, Bismarck concluded that the masses would have little reason to overthrow the existing system as they had been doing in Europe since the guillotine time of the French Revolution.

The public welfare concept was adopted to some degree in much of the rest of Europe. It is no accident of history that upward mobility producing systems of public education did not emerge there until after the upheaval of two world wars.

While we have our inequities, and “the American way” remains a work in progress, Americans retain our self-governing freedom to adapt and reform. We have a high standard of living as well as a “social safety net.” Our productivity produces tax revenue, which makes possible our public services. The foundation of all of this – universal public education – has made creating and sharing in the American dream a tangible reality for those fortunate enough to live here.

Particularly insulated from a less fortunate world, we Montanans have more than most of humankind to be grateful for. Our fortunate circumstances are due in large part to our ongoing commitment to public education. On May 5 we will have the opportunity as free people to again renew our commitment to our time-tested educational birthright by supporting our public schools.

Bob Brown is a former Montana secretary of state and state Senate president.

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