All Commentary
Thursday, March 1, 1956

The Case for the Private School

Mr. Schuyler is editor of the New York edition of the Pittsburgh Courier.

A century ago education was almost entirely privately supported and controlled throughout the United States. Indeed, it was not until the early years of the nineteenth century that the first free school (for Negroes, incidentally) was established in New York City. Schools were operated by religious organizations or individual educators. The parents directly paid tuition with occasional benefactions from grateful alumni. The private schools turned out fewer graduates proportionately than now emerge from the government (public) school system, but there was no criticism that these could not properly read, write, spell, and figure, nor that they were ignorant of geography, civics, and the great Christian principles that motivate men. Under this diverse system based on various educational philosophies and with widely varying curricula, the percentage of literate persons was not only large and increasing but regimentation of instruction was impossible, and there was wide experimentation. This diversity by its very nature enriched our culture.

While the government school system has never entirely displaced the private schools, it has largely superseded them. With the growing desire and demand for mass instruction following the Civil War, municipalities, cities, and states turned increasingly to tax-supported government schools until the latter became swamped by enrollment. There is now a widespread agitation for some form of federal subsidy. Thirty or forty years ago, such a suggestion would have been overwhelmingly rejected as leading inevitably to repugnant regimentation. This fear has been considerably justified by events, and accordingly dissatisfaction with government schools has grown, with widespread criticism of what and how our children are taught.

It is significant that despite the heavy school taxes which all must pay, an increasing number of parents are willing to assume the added burden of private tuition to assure their children the kind of educational discipline they want them to have. Many families are prepared to forego expensive gewgaws in order to do this, believing that the scholastic and ethical standards are higher in private than in government schools. They are scarcely in the mood for expensive frills and experiments of dubious value, preferring to have a more direct and final say about what, how, and by whom their children are taught. If they are not intrigued by efforts to instill in their offsprings’ minds enthusiasm for the United Nations, world government, TVA experiments, and “progressive” education, but prefer that they be instructed in the background and meaning of our Constitution, the clear and precise use of our language, and the mastery of mathematics or another language or two, they would like to choose their school.

Many American parents feel rightly that they, and not the State, should be responsible for what their children become; that education should be divorced from political control; and that those who prefer private instruction for their children should not be taxed for the upkeep of facilities which they did not choose nor curricula to which they do not want them exposed. There is a growing feeling that top administration and control of government school systems are too remote and too difficult to influence, that parents are mere robots in a machine that leaves little individual choice. There is some resentment that families should be taxed to “educate” the ineducable until adulthood when there is neither the capacity nor desire among these “children” nor their parents for further instruction.

The increase in real wages and the general lift in the standard of living in the United States now makes it possible for a much greater expansion of the private school system than was possible a century or half-century ago. There is certainly a much larger proportion of parents who would prefer to remove their children from government schools if some means could be devised to free them from paying for both systems as they now must do. It is difficult to see the justice of compelling those who are paying already for private instruction to be taxed additionally for government schools to which their offspring do not go or to which they would prefer not to send them. Indeed, such a legal provision, which would automatically expand the private school system, would relieve the State of just so much responsibility and expense, and thus reduce taxes.

There are dozens of religious organizations, whose members now find a double educational burden onerous, which would be able to establish their own schools where instruction could be given in their faith without any political controversy. There are wealthy labor unions, now maintaining many facilities for their members, which could as easily afford schools with curricula of their choosing. Private colleges and universities could expect a sustaining revenue from inevitably enlarged student bodies, thus relieving tax-supported institutions of higher learning from the increasing need for larger budgets. With continued prosperity one can envision the time when “free” education would be reduced to a minimum. The “right” to an education would thus become a parental obligation and more in accord with a free society.

There is a real and present danger in regimented government education which an expanded private school system would allay by its wide variety of curricula and de-centralization of control. Courses of study laid down by, or increasingly influenced by, a central administration can be disastrous if not in step with changing requirements in an evolving society. Such a ponderous hierarchy does not readily respond to developing individual tastes nor social necessity. This is already reflected in the distressingly small proportion of secondary-school and college graduates who are equipped for leadership in our highly technical age where rapid communications have shrunk the earth.

With the greater flexibility and capacity of a decentralized private school system to be more responsive to the needs and desires of an alert and responsible citizenry, it is doubtful if the present educational impasse would have occurred or be so difficult to resolve. Some private schools might lag or become bogged down in performing their duty of educating students to cope with contemporary problems of citizenship, culture, and industry; but by virtue of their diversity and greater parental influence, it is probable that the percentage would be small.

The real slavery of Israel in Egypt was that they had learned to endure it.


Rabbi Hanokh of Alexander
as quoted by Victor Gollaocz in Man and God