Public education

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(HOST) Health care is on everyone’s mind as the Legislature struggles to pass a reform bill. Commentator Allen Gilbert looks at another public endeavor that also faced many challenges.

(GILBERT) We very well might be present at the creation of an important public endeavor: a comprehensive statewide health care system. The Legislature has put its brains and brawn behind drafting a blueprint. To build upon that blueprint, compromises will have to be reached with the governor’s office during this legislative session and the next. But, if successful, these efforts could lead to a significant achievement.

Everyone deserves decent health care. But we haven’t been able to figure out, as a society, how to meet this important need. We Americans are reluctant to commit to large public endeavors. Indeed, President Bush is now trying to redesign one of the country’s greatest public endeavors, Social Security.

All this has made me reflect on how we, as a country, accomplished what has perhaps been the single greatest public endeavor we’ve ever undertaken, other than war. That endeavor is public education.

When “common” schools were established in this country 200 years ago, we made a commitment unmatched anywhere in the world. We said that every citizen in our society mattered, and that every citizen deserved an equal chance to succeed. We created public schools to carry through on the commitment.

It’s hard to appreciate how radical a step this was at the time. Schools represented a vast expansion of government’s role in people’s lives, and a vast new expenditure of public funds. It’s a miracle that we ever succeeded in this endeavor. Indeed, in some places, public school advocates almost didn’t succeed.

My college thesis was about Rhode Island’s efforts to establish public schools. I became interested in the topic when I learned that schools were established there only after an armed rebellion against the state government. Yes, that’s right – an armed rebellion that resulted, for a time, in the seating of a rival rump government. The “Dorr Rebellion”, as it was called because of its leader, Thomas Dorr, was caused by the refusal of conservative political leaders to expand voting rights beyond property-owning white males.

The Dorr government collapsed when Rhode Island citizens were horrified by the sight of cannons on the lawn of their statehouse, and when the federal government threatened intervention if the “lawful” government were not reinstated. But even after the old political leaders returned to power, fear remained.

Thoughtful conservatives recognized that the new working class, made up of non-farm laborers, couldn’t be marginalized and left out of public life. Worried that these citizens weren’t quite ready for full participation in democracy, the state’s Whig Party committed to establishing a comprehensive public school system – something that they had opposed before the Dorr Rebellion.

And so, in Rhode Island as well as the rest of the country, a great public endeavor began. But think of the forces that had to be overcome before it succeeded.

We should all wish our legislature and governor well as they work to fashion a universal health care system that benefits all Vermonters. It will be a great achievement if they succeed.

This is Allen Gilbert.

Allen Gilbert is a former journalist, teacher and consultant currently serving as executive director of the ACLU of Vermont. He has a longtime interest in public policy issues. He spoke from our studio in Montpelier.

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