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Roosevelt vs. Reagan ...

... and the future of public education in the United States.

Free education for all children in public schools - the bedrock of American democracy, right? Actually, it's one of the ten planks of The Communist Manifesto, published by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels in 1848. Interestingly, Marxism was birthed at about the same time that "public education" was gaining broad acceptance in the United States. Until the 1840s most schools were privately owned and operated, but in 1837 the Massachusetts State Board of Education was established and Horace Mann became its first secretary, spearheading the proliferation of free public schools. By 1870 every state in the nation provided free elementary education. Compulsory school attendance became law in Massachusetts in 1852, New York in 1853, and by 1918 all of the United States had laws requiring public school attendance (though a 1925 Supreme Court decision established the right to attend private schools instead, but at the additional personal expense of those attending).

Universal Education

I'm not suggesting that our Founding Fathers who promoted public schools- including Thomas Jefferson and George Washington-had socialist tendencies, or that American education is communistic. I'm concerned, however, about the evolution of public schooling in the United States and want to distinguish between universal access to a quality education and public education. That is, ensuring universal access to a quality education is imperative to the sustainability and progress of a free society, but it is wrong to assert that universal access to education is only achievable through government-funded and government-run schools. Universal access to education is necessary to promote the general welfare and preserve freedom, but how we get there is really a choice between Franklin D. Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan.


In his famous "fireside chat" in January 1944, President Roosevelt claimed that the difficulties of the Depression and the sacrifices of World War II had "imposed on us all a sacred obligation." He clarified this, saying, "The one supreme objective for the future, which we discussed for each nation individually, and for all the United Nations, can be summed up in one word: Security." Roosevelt saw government as the provider of this security, and said, "We have accepted, so to speak, a second Bill of Rights under which a new basis of security and prosperity can be established for all."

Among Roosevelt's new rights were the right to a job, the right to decent earnings, the right of every family to a decent home, the right to adequate medical care, and the right to a good education. These rights went far beyond the "limited government" described in the U.S. Constitution and its tenth amendment, which states, "The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved for the States respectively, or to the people."

Public education in the United States today is decidedly Rooseveltian. The autonomy of local school boards has given way to increasing state and federal regulation. The federal Department of Education, created in 1980, imposes massive requirements, such as NCLB, but only provides limited funding. Parents have little or no say regarding which school their children attend or what is taught there. The resulting bureaucratic behemoth supports commonality and conformity over innovation and progress.


Thirty-seven years after Roosevelt's speech, in his first inaugural address, Ronald Reagan rebuff ed Roosevelt's concept of government as the great provider, claiming, "In this present crisis, government is not the solution to our problem, government is the problem," and emphasizing, "We are a nation that has a government-not the other way around." Reagan claimed that "the full power of centralized government was the very thing the Founding Fathers sought to minimize. They also knew, those Founding Fathers, that outside of its legitimate functions, government does nothing as well or as economically as the private sector of the economy."

Reagan was right, but don't think I'm merely advocating the privatization of public education. Rather, I'm advocating a fresh look at how best to ensure universal access to quality education in a free society. Just as Roosevelt's Social Security fails to provide adequately for the financial needs of the retired, too often public schools fail to provide adequately for the educational needs of our youth. It's time for change. After all, promoting the common good is of far greater value than preserving the system. Isn't it?

Daniel E. Kinnaman is the publisher. dkinnaman@promediagrp