As parents opt out, could we see eroding support for public education? Based on my research as a historian of American education, I fear so. The reason is simple. In a country that has long been hostile to big government, public schools succeeded because almost every family was a stakeholder.
At the time of the American Revolution, education was not considered a public good. Parents were responsible for educating their own children. But, many Revolutionary-era leaders argued, a democracy requires all citizens to be educated, and this requires providing tax support for new public schools.
Americans then were skeptical. Many were unwilling to pay taxes to educate other families’ children. Tax collectors sometimes faced physical threats when they went out to collect school taxes! Although American leaders — Thomas Jefferson among them — spoke eloquently about the need to equalize access to education, their words were not enough. It was not until a critical mass of Americans started sending their kids to the new public schools that schooling really took off. As more parents sent their kids to public schools, others wanted in. And over time, the bulk of families in a community had a reason to pay taxes for public schools: Their children or grandchildren attended. In short, public support for public schooling was forged through the schools themselves.