Conflict between public schools and private schools has existed for many generations. Advocates of private schools often deride the value of American public education, and advocates of public schools criticize elitist attitudes associated with private schools. In reality, this conflict is not just born out of pettiness toward the other side, but from a real problem in America about the role and future of public education and its importance for future generations. This debate is divided by political lines as well, with Democrats favoring public school education and Republicans favoring school choice options through both charter and private schools.
The push for mandatory public education in America truly began in the 1920s, when attempts to create the Department of Education were born from the creation of the Smith-Towner bill. The bill emphasized the immense illiteracy present throughout America and wanted to fix it. Groups like the Ku Klux Klan co-opted this effort, despising the many immigrants arriving in America that they believed were unwilling to assimilate. For this reason, the group supported federal standards for education and the dissolving of parochial and private schools to prevent them from shielding immigrant and religious communities.
Private schools backed by their religious parishes, known as parochial schools, fought back against pushes to give universal power to government education. They formed lobbying groups like the National Catholic Welfare Conference to push back against anti-private school legislation arising throughout the country. Following World War II, this push to dissolve religious schools gained traction, with Paul Blanshard’s book, American Freedom and Catholic Power, asserting that America had a “Catholic problem” in education.
Private schools have been criticized over generations for many reasons. As mentioned, parochial schools were attacked for supposedly deterring immigrant assimilation in the early to mid-20th century. More recently, private schools receive criticism for their role in turning students away from public education. This criticism often comes from Democrat politicians, who argue that school choice allows for an unjust, uneven playing field for millions of students throughout the country. Critics argue that parents need to send their children to public schools to improve public education over time. They argue that property taxes and federal funding for education are not enough and that parents throughout the country need to choose public schools over private schools to improve the government system’s educational merit over many generations.
Public schools have had their own criticisms lobbed at them. The public education system in America has a terrible reputation in many areas of the country. Families often have to choose between lackluster educations for their children in their school district and shelling out money to afford private educations. Other criticisms of public education include accusations of political indoctrination from teachers that have a political bias. On the other hand, many critics of public education support the existence of charter schools, which exist as semi-autonomous public schools that receive federal funding but that hold their own standards of education separate from the public-school system.
While school choice has historically been a point of debate between Democrats and Republicans, this tension has increased drastically in the last few years. Families who send their children to private schools are often seen as well-off, disconnected, and selfish. Parochial schools are viewed with just as much skepticism, with supporters of public schools arguing that parochial schools are tools of religious indoctrination that care more about faith than education. Meanwhile, public schools are critisized as having low academic standards. Regardless, this conflict arises from concern over the wellbeing of young people through education, making it a valid, essential debate in American society today.