Public Education: A National Birthright

Located directly between Glacier and Yellowstone National Parks, Montana residents are proud to recognize our land of natural splendor as the “last best place” in the country.

Our pride is justified, even if it is not of our making. One idea, however, which is a creation of the human mind and which is of incalculable importance, is our historically unique system of public education.

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

In keeping with Jefferson’s vision, Congress has repeatedly renewed national support for public education. Examples are the Land Grant Act, which provided significant support to Montana State University as well as the University of Montana and Montana Tech; the Enabling Act, which established Montana’s statehood and in doing so overruled Sections 16 and 36 of each township within 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 provide a base of support for all Montana public schools has been in effect for three-quarters of a century.

Undoubtedly, there has been a firm and ongoing recognition both in our nation and in 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 one of the main reasons why millions of European immigrants fled a hopeless existence of ignorance and poverty in the old world to seek opportunities in the new world. The key to opportunity here was public education. The booming American economy of the 1800s had an overwhelming need for literate workers. Those who could cipher and read the language were much more productive than those who could not. They would soon become not only the backbone of the American labor force, but also the creators of countless private enterprises that resulted in perpetual job creation, and thus a continuous cycle of opportunity and prosperity.

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

As an alternative to the competition for the wealth and power that an educated workforce would inevitably create, the European nobility decided to create a welfare state, the prototype of which took place under the leadership of the German “Iron Chancellor” Otto Von Bismarck. By providing for basic human needs at state expense, Bismarck concluded that the masses would have little reason to overthrow the existing system as they had done in Europe since the guillotine days of the French Revolution.

The concept of public welfare has been adopted to some extent in much of the rest of Europe. It is no accident of history that systems of public education producing social ascent only appeared there after the upheaval of the two world wars.

Although we have our inequalities and “the American way” remains a work in progress, Americans retain their autonomous freedom to adapt and reform. We have a high standard of living and a “social safety net”. Our productivity generates tax revenue, which makes our public services possible. The foundation of it all – universal public education – has made creating and sharing the American Dream a tangible reality for those fortunate enough to live here.

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

Bob Brown is a former Montana Secretary of State and President of the State Senate.

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